"Good morning, up and about, rise and shine, blah blah blah!"
Priscilla Locke got up at seven AM, sharp, Somalia time, thanks to the loud shouting that emanated from the walls, straight into her ears. She managed to cover them for a few measly seconds.
Then, the walls talked again. To her absolute horror, Priss realized they were talking with Sarah Desjeux's voice.
"Will you wake up!? It's MEDICINE DAY! Come ON, parahealther, wake up, Frankie has been gone for hours and I've GOTTA SHOW YOU OUR STUFF!"
Her voice went silent with a sizzling sound. By then, Priss was already squirming on the floor of the 'prefabricated' cubic room, and remembering how her room was not normal. It had been grown, it had an intercom and, apparently, it could be operated from the intercom as a god-damned home cinema system.
Then, Priss saw her phone, and the time. She wondered when had that damned woman woken up. Wasn't she wired enough last night?
Three minutes later, she was already dressed and ready to confront the day and a possibly drugged ecHealth. She was also loudly mumbling and grumbling under the unnecessary heft of her backpack and its main occupant, who- no, that was too heavy for its own good.
She opened the door, expecting to find herself face to face with Opal; however, even if the woman's low stature would have made it difficult by itself, Priss's fear went unrealized, as she noticed her going from cube to cube, shouting into each intercom and giggling like a dope. A few volunteers were already up and out of bed, converging in front of a cubic structure slightly larger than the rest.
The mess hall.
Or something like that, since it was simply a prefabricated food distribution center, covered in brightly white gypsum and gifted with a large counter-like window used to serve the food, that was reserved for early risers and volunteers alone. It had a kitchen. It served the same food that Lila and Opal would serve to their patients later. It was, to all intents and purposes, not efficient enough.
As she came into the short queue before Afwerki and her plates, Priss realized something: she had slept well.
For the first time in weeks, no, in years, she had slept for entire hours without screams waking her up, be it real or dreamed. For the first time in years, she felt tired simply because her body was actually tired. Of physical work.
Priscilla Locke was in front of Lila Afwerki when she stated to herself, with a loud enough voice as to be heard by her: "I'm sleeping…"
"Well, you do not look all that drowsy, Locke! Here, just for today we've got a little something to wake us all up, since the kids were so distracted last evening."
She looked at Afwerki. The woman, who had donned a different headscarf and tunic that morning, was offering her a cup and a bowl. The cup contained lukewarm coffee. The bowl had…
"Is that honey?"
Afwerki's expression froze.
"Oh, no, no, dear," she stuttered, apparently terrified and perhaps a bit pleading; "in God's name, no. We-we stopped using that! Nonono, this is not that honey, I promise, miss Locke-"
"Alright, alright! It was just a question!"
Lila seemed to calmed down slightly, but she still had to sit down, seemingly out of breath. "I'm sorry, miss… it's-it's just, I was with the Work Group that used that, and-well!" The woman passed a hand over her front. She sounded very distressed.
Her voice was probably the reason why two young men in MCF volunteer vests went to their older counterpart from behind on the queue. Several others came closer, trying to see how they could helped. Lila smiled at them, calmly speaking to them in French and in a language Priss couldn't recognize. Again. She'd better learn to speak some other language than English if she was to adapt to the place.
"Sorry, Locke," Lila said, straight to her. In a way, her eyes were more than tired, they looked older than a moment before. Awkward, Priss tried to hold her gaze as the other volunteers started handling the queue themselves. The woman pointed at one of the pots they were taking the golden goo from. "That's just a sablepurée, something I learned to cook overseas. It's nutritious enough and almost entirely normal… and I swear on my hands, it is one hundred percent hypoallergenic," she assured, her voice breaking softly as her words died off.
"Okay," Locke said, not certain on what to answer to that, still feeling quite awkward. Some of the volunteers were whispering in that way that only can be interpreted as that 'yes, we are talking about you, ginger, you don't belong here' style; she still found it annoying and rather disarming. Priscilla chose to focus on her bowl, filled with that golden paste, in which small bits of cereal floated, suspended on the transparent paste. The fuck did I do?
Then she realized.
"Wait, honey. Hypoallergenic honey, right, I was not thinking straight." Priss looked at Lila, suddenly awake. "You were talking about the mess with that sarcophagus, right? Sorry, I didn't realize. Not that I've read a lot about that."
"Oh. You didn't know, then?" Lila openly smiled at her, rubbing her left eye with the back of her hand. "Well, now I feel silly."
Priss had seen a thousand faces like that one. Most were crying in agony at the beginning, many of those broken and empty later, all of them dead in the end. None of them smiled at her. Not sincere, beautiful smiles, not like that smile.
Instead of coming back to haunt her, all those faces were a stark contrast over which that face was, at that moment, in that place, the world to her. Priss felt like she was made of honey, and that was a perfectly good reason why her legs were shaking. That smile is gorgeous. And she is smiling at me?
"Thanks, Locke," Afwerki said as she stood up, her eyelids shut while she weakly smacked her cheeks.
Oh, now she's thanking me.
"Please, don't thank me, I was insensitive, and-"
The woman opened her eyes again. "No, no, I didn't-oh, how do you say that. I feel guilty over that, you know. We all feel guilty over the times we were wrong, I suppose, even if we did save some people then, too…", she seemed to be lost in her own thoughts for a brief moment, but soon came back to her senses and dedicated another bright smile to Priss. "One does all one can, nothing more. Now, I may be getting old and clumsy, but I can always try and make some breakfast."
"Don't worry, we'll meet down there, in the clinic! I think it's today you came with us? I usually work with her. With Opal," she clarified.
"Right. I'll go have breakfast, then," Pris said, turning to get one of the plastic stools the other volunteers were already spreading between the cubes.
Lila Afwerki serenely smiled at her as she sat, then went back to attend the queue. Her movements were kind of slower, perhaps even jerking. As she watched the robed woman filling bowl after bowl with the cold contents of her golden concoction and cup after cup with the brown stream from a large aluminium coffee pot, Priscilla Locke tried both things.
The coffee was bitter, but woke her up completely. The sablepurée was sweet, rough with bits of cereals and bread crumbs, and reminded her of old breakfasts taken on the days when WestCiv didn't demand anything of her.
Priscilla felt her sister — the inhuman mongrel — laughing. It's always easier having no one care about you, ain't that right, sis?
She grabbed her backpack, tightly clutching to it when she noticed Desjeux coming to her.
"And good ol' Skippy goes and tells me, with that twangy voice he makes when he tries to be serious, pfah! Listen, listen, he goes:" Sarah Desjeux raised a hand into the air. That hand was impregnated in the fresh blood of an amputee; "I kneed gyou tgo lisgten knarefully, Opgal. Gyou have a scorgpion on gyour ghair."
The doctor broke into laughter yet again as her hands went back to sewing the pitiful flaps of bleeding skin and muscle into a stump. She had been doing that, and worse, all morning with those afflicted of the Sour. All three Satanists on guard and herself had been examining and treating them last night. After curing the disease proper, they had to clean the wounds and put skin drafts over them, since those injuries caused by the Sour never healed naturally. That usually implied major surgery.
She moved her hands faster than Priscilla imagined would be safe or possible in a surgery. The fake auditor stood a good meter behind her alleged colleague in the medical profession to make certain that at least her green apron remained clean. Well, that, and the smell. Every person that was treated looked perfectly healthy to her, save for the horrible, gaping holes filled with surgical tissue and half-clotting blood. As soon as they left the room, they were asking for their families or their legs.
And there was that woman, making jokes.
Priss couldn't tell if the situation was sad or comical.
"I don't find it funny, Desjeux," she finally conferred through her surgical mask, to what the surgeon responded by joyfully laughing again.
"Funny you would say that, 'cause that's word by word the next thing he said!"
Priscilla shook her head, annoyed. "How is the programme going, anyhow?"
"Fine, fine," the surgeon said, smiling behind her own mask. "We'll have most of the people in the camp on prophylactics in less than two days. Logistics has already promised us a big shipment of both Aciclovir and Prometerine to counter the infestation in its latent state. As for people in the active stages of the disease, well…"
Opal made a flowery move that made her hands look like she was doing a magic trick; and lo and behold, one of the flaps of flesh looked like it had always been part of a stump.
"We'll take care of them," she sang.
Two minutes later, Lila was taking measurements of the unfortunate man's legs to get him a provisional prosthesis. Apparently, the operation had gone smoothly. As he started to come around, Toribio, the Portuguese nurse, and the Satanist Mirra moved him into one of the wheeled chairs and took him away to have him wake up somewhere else. The 'operating room' they were using was one of the Vestan cubes that had been dropped by Olympe half-way between the camp and the rest of the prefabricated rooms. It felt — and was — cramped with packed and unpacked medical equipment, but the excellent aseptic conditions made possible by the Mason Mold warranted that, among other things, patients were very likely safe from infections.
Or so Desjeux and the Rabbi thought. Priss made a face. We are trusting lives to the idiot and-
Priss felt a chill, and she hated herself in silence for it.
"Hey, Locke, you alright there, hun?"
Desjeux had placed her hand on Priss' arm. She freed herself from the gentle grip. "I'm fine. Why?"
"You looked… somewhere else."
Priss raised her sight to tell her that she could go have a laugh about it with those people that loved her so much. It was met by that pair of googly brown eyes that, were they half the size, would have been perfect for a newborn child.
"I was-", Priss looked around, looking for the right words. They never came, so she went with a classic. "I'm fine."
"You might be a fine gal, yes, but you are a lousy liar," the stout woman said in a lulling voice. There was concern in her eyes, but it was quickly traded with mania, as the many wrinkles born of the corner of her eyes betrayed that maddening smile behind the surgical mask. "Won't force you to say a thing, though. You think it's your business? Yours it is, then. Mirra!"
As Desjeux left the room to talk to the robed witch-scientist about the next patient, Priscilla looked at her gloved hands.
There were specks of blood on them.
She discarded the gloves and watched them melt into the ground as the mold worked its magic. Checking on her backpack again to make certain it hadn't been taken by some sneaky thief or melted away over the floor, she felt her hands humid again with that all too memorable, sticky fluid that would soon dry up, crackle and redden everything…
But it was just sweat.
"That one, that one there! You, sir! Please, come over here-", and Desjeux lapsed again into Arab. Priss was beginning to wonder if it was a mandatory language course in school over this universe.
The stream of refugees coming into the camp had not died down; it had become an unevenly timed trickle of large groups carried by overloaded trucks and smaller groups loaded with what was left of their properties in sacks, backpacks and clapped-out carts. It was all going 'according to plan', as long as you did not realize that Opal and her people didn't have anything resembling an actual plan, beyond "give them a look and the aciclo-prom cocktail."
One of her volunteers, a young American man, raised a hand to get her superior's attention.
"She's got it, Opal!"
"Damn… okay, tell the family-no, I think they only speak Somali. Uh-Ziza, tell them we'll be taking her to the isolation area," the stout woman ordered another volunteer, who ran to them. Opal looked around, searching for another one of her triage workers. "Mirra! Mirra, how about those two?"
"The mother has it. The son didn't have any symptoms, but-"
"Right, prophylactics. We still have enough for the day. Was she hurt?"
"A bad cut over her stomach. She was bleeding white."
Priss looked away when she heard that. Several people already had the Sour when the Work Group arrived in Laascaanood, barely two days ago. They had been treated before the disease could spread any further, but many people in the camp — perhaps Priss herself, and every MCF worker — might had been infected already. True, she was not doing any actual medical work since her role as an auditor technically banned her from doing anything involving medical tasks. Which was fortunate, since her knowledge in the field was limited at best… but Priss had heard the sickness might spread just by touch.
She tried to look as professional as possible while checking that her long, thick, white plastic gloves and her mask covered as much as possible of her skin. Meanwhile, a t-shirt wearing Desjeux placed her blatantly naked hands on her hips as she nodded at Mirra, whose black robe was splattered with sickeningly white drops. The satanist was explaining the situation of other patients already isolated in the tents.
"-and a few have tried to eat the worms already. As usual, they don't respond to anything I try to do and keep chanting about the Maggot Mother," she sighed. Priss gagged, but managed to remain firm while the thought of the symptoms of the Sour formed in her mind. It was not your regular cough. "A few have even started to draw the symbols. And I don't think I can help them without resorting to thaumatologic surgery, there are just too many for me to take on all of them at the same time."
"Alright, no worries," the Executive member told her workmate. "Go crazy, excising the stuff is your specialty, right? If you have to, try the Three Circles, the Eight if you feel up for it, but…" At that point, Opal succinctly glanced at Priss. "Hold that thought for a moment, please."
The fake auditor tried to look calm and collected as Desjeux closed in, but she couldn't stop glancing at the hands she had been using to explore, and touch, and operate. "Can I help you?"
"Uh, well, yeah, this is embarrassing," Sarah Desjeux admitted. She did look abashed. "See, we have been using, ahm, experimental techniques, nothing too aggressive, to remove the necrotic tissue from our beneficiaries. Nothing too aggressive, as I was saying, the Circles of Negation, mostly. But, uh, I'm supposed to cooperate with you and I know what the Phoo thinks of-well, I was wondering if you could look the other way as Mirra does her thing."
Locke tried to adjust to the new development. "Hmm-I thought you were only using conventional surgery?"
Desjeux crossed her arms and looked upwards while making a hissing sound, a gesture of irritation and powerlessness.
"Oh, indeed, surgery, of course, sure, that, but some of these people, see, they have internal injuries, or wounds that are already infected. There is a limit to what we can cure without cutting, let's say, half a brain out, or a third of a heart," she said, letting a little, sad laugh out. "It's a shame, but some times magic's just better."
"Don't call it magic, Opal," Mirra said, and the woman managed to sound petulant and sweet at the same time. "Modern thaumaturgs like us should call it by what it is, or else we would be back to adoring inhuman horrors. Isn't that right, miss Locke?"
"Sure," she said, hoping it was what was expected of her. Without giving them space to say anything else, she turned to Desjeux again. "But I would love to see the procedures and judge by myself."
"What is it?"
"Locke felt ill."
"Oh. Mirra, what did you show her? I hope you didn't do a psychotomy…"
"Of course not, Opal, it was an Eight Circle ritual. A normal one, no external contacts or anything! Just to pick some wood splinters inside a kid's abdomen! No Otherness involved, I swear. And the Third Circles went well, too, she said it was amazing and all that. Although… I might have forgotten to mention she was gonna get some blood on her when I started the abjuration."
"This again. How many times do I have to remind you not to assume people know what you are doing? She must be a normal doctor! Some people in the parahealthers are just medics too, you know? Not surgeons?"
"Then what is she even doing here?"
"Check if we are going overboard. Are we going overboard, Mirra?"
"Oh, come on, give me a br-I mean, what did I know? She's the first field parahealther I've met!"
Her tiny cube-room, where someone had stacked some cardboard boxes and a few sacks with seeds, was dark now. Priss appreciated the change, since light had been a bane on her for almost all afternoon. Other things that were a bane on her were blood, tiny talking beaks and the surgical applications of still warm, sentient blood.
"I had wondered what were those roosters doing in their pickup," Priss confessed as she regained a minimum of dignity to speak, or as much dignity as one could have when leaning back on a bunk bed. The woman weakly gesticulated, trying to transmit some sort of explanation over her sorry state. "It's something about how it moved when the, you know, the witch cut its head-"
"Thaumaturgs. Don't call them 'witches.'"
"What, they'll hex me?," she said, ironic. Then she remembered the feeling of having a cockerel's comb jumping into her mouth and gagged.
"Nah, but they can be real bores with their I'm-not-a-wizard speech," Frank laughed. "I mean, I did tell you they were able to exorcise entities by talking them into un-believing themselves, right? Not an exaggeration. Odd stuff, but it's supposed to save them a lot of time and effort. For other procedures, they usually sacrifice roosters, or rats, you know, to gather energy for their rituals, or something. Better than goats, or people, I guess… I heard they can even use orgies, when they have to. Although you could have asked about all this, Locke."
Priss spat on the ground. The spit disappeared on the clean, tiled floor almost instantly. "And blow my cover."
"The World Parahealth Organisation is not exclusively made of all-knowing polymaths, Locke," Frank said, carefully holding the bucket in which she had been vomiting. "They don't have to know everything. More often than not, ritualistic procedures are what the individual practitioner makes of them. There are no standards here, so showing ignorance might be better than the alternative. And these people love to teach their stuff, by the way! Don't be afraid to ask them about anything. And you could have still asked me."
"I didn't wanna know."
He looked like he was going to add something else, so Priss grabbed the bucket to make sure she had somewhere to gape at as nausea seized her again, even if she could only puke bile at that point.
When it stopped, she looked at Frank and asked him the question that had been circling her mind all morning. "How does she do it?"
Frank smirked. "Are you asking about the magic bullcrap the Satanist sisters pull on a daily basis or about Opal?"
"About Desjeux, yes. She just doesn't stop!"
"Well, that's a good question." He sat by her side, looking deep in thought. "I haven't seen her sleep more than two hours a day since I joined her Work Group, and it's been a while. I haven't heard her insulting or looking down on anyone. Nor angry. She never complains about being tired or hungry, and I can count the number of times I've seen her eat anything."
"Eat. If you ask me, she had some of the First Vestan Donation and has kept it to herself all this years. Never worked the courage to ask."
"An old Donation, gone badly. Well, not exactly badly. Nevermind, we don't use it anymore… a shame, too, it could have ended world famine almost completely, but it broke too many rules. The International Board members were furious. Besides, we accidentally lost most of the stuff, I hear." Frank said, calmly. "The Vesta Conglomerate makes really neat stuff, always intelligent molds, as it turns out, but it's simply too unstable for the most part. The Third is the only one we have been able to use without-"
"Westinghouse. You talk too much," Priss cut him, passing a hand over her hair. She noticed it was filthy with dirt and vomit. "And my head hurts. Focus on Opal."
"Okay. Well, whatever her deal is, I can tell you she's cool. Please, let me finish," he said, hurriedly. Priss did not interrupt him; she was not in any shape for a debate. "She may sound like a complete loony half the time and be a pain in the ass the other half, but she knows her way around. And I mean it. She knows us, she knows everyone around, and in turn we all get to know her, and then gets us all to dance whatever crazy waltz we have to when we get assigned somewhere new. She is one of the greatest reasons that our Work Group works so well."
Priss looked at Frank. He was serious.
"Where is she from?"
"What? Canadian, I think-"
"Canadian, that's a great answer," she said. "Look, Westinghouse, dunno why but this woman seems to have you all dancing to her rhythm and you seem to know it. That worries me."
"No, now you let me finish."
She felt angry. It had been some time since she had last felt angry, although she had certainly felt better than that; her mouth still tasted foul, her throat felt and sounded sore and the room spun if she tried to move around.
Strangely enough, she also felt cleaner.
"That woman is not normal," Priscilla stated, looking into Frank's doubtful eyes. "I don't care much about her, nor her little coven, I just don't care, but don't you dare tell me she is normal, or respectful. There is something off about her."
Priss thought of the smothering way Desjeux had been treating her after she left the portable toilet by the 'clinic' where Mirra had performed her 'surgery'. The way she had pushed her to the prefabricated room by the edge of the camp and closed the door behind her, saying all that 'you'll get better in no time' crap.
She had seen fear in her eyes. She was hiding something, Priss was sure.
"She is suspicious."
Frank's brows arced at the word. "Mind I remind you that the world is quite too complicated to want to see an enemy where there is only a friend?"
Priscilla could not believe what he was saying. "She is a friggin' anomaly! They all are!"
"Sure, and today they've saved dozens of lives. You saw them doing it."
She closed her eyes. "I know, so what. I've seen things-I mean, sometimes it seems too good to be true, and then it is too good!" Frank's docile expression infuriated her as she opened her eyes again. "She looks the fucking part!"
"Well, this takes me back to our first meeting. But fine, fine, she is a too-good-to-be-true happiness-inducing alien from outer space, or from Canada, who secretly wishes for humans to go extinct. Right, and nobody has seen her coming for, what, thirty years?"
Priscilla gaped for a moment. Then, she felt tired. Really tired. "I… I don't know. This is all backwards."
"Cultural shock, they call it."
"Hey, Desjeux," Frank said.
Priss felt the need to get up and stand alert, but that traitorous dizziness pinned her to her bed. "You've-"
"I just heard the last minutes. Or so. Wanted to check on you, but now that I'm here…" Desjeux squatted by the bed, with her usual grin. However, she sounded dead serious for once. "Look, I'm not a trickster nor a liar. I'm just not gonna tell you the truth, ever. Not all of it. Where do I come from, who I was before joining, that stuff… I simply changed when I came into the Charitable. Everyone does. Everyone has a past, too. And you have to learn to deal with it, in the same way that I accept I will never get to know you, at all. It's abundantly clear you are not a doctor, and you are probably not from the phoo," the woman tilted her head towards Frank, "no matter what mister Security Executive over here tells me about it."
Priss felt like if she was suddenly under interrogation. She couldn't say anything about herself, nor Anabasis. Lies and half-truths began forming in her mind; and, suddenly, with a giggle, Desjeux looked into her eyes and said:
"And I don't care about it."
Feeling her own confusion painted across her face, Priscilla Locke tried to form a sentence.
"See, we have to trust each other. I have to trust that François and Frank have not been secretly reporting to the Coalition and the other Foundation all these years. I have to trust my girls to keep working for these poor people, even if their creed tells them they should be killing God again in some lost corner of Jerusalem, or wherever the bearded moron is these days. I have to trust Lila to not slip poison in our food — and yes, I do eat, Frankie — while we're still sleeping so she can feast on our hearts in the late hours of the night, for that matter. We must trust each other, no matter how hard it is to trust in what we see of each other, even before we get to know what we can't see."
Opal stood again. Not an impressive change in stature, but, with Priss still on her bed, it was enough to make the stout woman imposing; an impression she reinforced by letting her hair, which had been collapsed into a bun, free.
Coils upon coils half-hid the round face, her eyes somehow visible between them in the dying light of the evening sun that came through the windows. Her hands went to her broad hips, her legs separated in a defying stance and she proudly stated, in an attempt to sound martial:
"Trust is our lifeblood, Locke. If we don't trust, there is no Charitable. So welcome aboard, try not to be too paranoid and, as long as you trust Frank, don't trust me! But, please, let me do my job. Geddit?"
Opal turned away and left, gently spinning as she closed the door.
Frank looked at Priss' face and said: "See, that's what it was like for me, too. At first, I had that face pretty much all the time. Now I mostly just facepalm."
Frank demonstrated the gesture.
"Oh, that. Right."
In the awkward moment that followed, Opal's voice thundered again through the speaker-walls.
"AH, FRANK, DEAR BY THE WAY, I'LL BE REAL BUSY TOMORROW SO YOU TAKE HER FOR A WALK, OKAY?, OKAY THANKS BYEEE."