Frank felt just a bit claustrophobic.
The darkroom was, appropriately enough, a tiny, dark, hot and incredibly moist hellhole with an actual hole in the middle, which was enough for anyone to be a little dizzy. The ceiling was barely a meter and eighty centimeters high, and it felt like it was breathing, periodically combing under its own weight.
However, the oppressive atmosphere was minor in comparison to the smell that penetrated everything. Frank just knew that, despite the mask and the overall, it would stick to him, his clothes, his skin and his hair. It would probably violate the taste of every meal he had in days or weeks and turn his daily ablutions into a nightmare.
I hate this Vestan stuff, he growled to himself.
In any case, Frank couldn't deny the efficiency of the Third Vestan Donation. The hard-working fungi were rising a building where there had been just an empty patch of arid, barren land; a building destined to become a hospital with fifty beds, employing thirty or more permanent personnel, equipped with an independent source of electricity and clean water.
It was just that the floors still felt — and smelt — like they were made of compacted compost and decaying reed.
But the room was growing, as was the rest of the complex. It would become an actual darkroom at some point in the next days. And the final product would be just a facade for the tunnel which was growing from its floor.
Growing and digging at the same time. It was a novel concept for Frank, whose limited notions of construction screamed at him that all that removed soil and rock had to be going somewhere.
From the looks of it, it seemed to be going straight to the ceiling.
"When will it be finished?"
Frank focused on Priscilla Locke. In the day they had been together, she had told him about some aspects of her life in the old universe. He knew her mentality would be a problem. Even if he didn't want to blame her for it, her occasional grimace and racist remarks were enough to attract unwanted attention.
He would have to give her some guidelines and ban some topics. Tell her to just avoid certain conversations. But even so, he had no idea of how she had found the Charitable, or joined. Or, for that matter, how had she been accepted by the Mission Board.
Both of them were standing over the edge of an unfinished tunnel that would lead straight to the underground laboratory where she would test her thing, whatever it was. In the meantime, he was neither allowed to know what the thing itself was — old feelings of frustration stirred at the mere thought of secrets upon secrets piling up away from his sight — nor cleared to know exactly who she was.
"It should be done in ten to thirteen hours, miss Locke," Jacob answered, solicitous from the threshold of the wide hole that would become the only door, in the room. "It's actually a bit of an experiment, we have never used the Vestan Donation to dig an underground repository."
"A… repository," Frank blurted. He felt more than saw Priscilla's eyes drilling through his skull, but the good man didn't even notice the implied question in Frank's words.
"Yes!", stated the Rabbi, joyously ignorant of the scene. "I didn't even think of that, and it's a great idea! We are growing a water repository down here! See, we have reasonable doubts that the Milking Maggots' main vector is another parasitic microorganism, Giardia lamblia, that can easily contaminate water sources. It can be a bad fucker, if you will pardon the expression, because it provokes diarrhea and water supply around here is an-"
"Thank you, Doctor." Priss said with an absent smile, "Is it running smoothly?"
"Definitely, definitely smoothly!" Jacob almost sung. "No aberrant growths, no discombobulated parts, everything according to the plans you brought, miss Locke!"
"Oh, thank you, you may call me Jacob. Or Rabbi! Everyone calls me Rabbi."
It was Frank's turn to stare at Priscilla's expression, that was rapidly becoming sour.
Nobody knew who she was around there. Nobody but Frank… and even he could not point out exactly what was wrong with her.
"Thanks, Rabbi," he ended up saying to the politely confused biologist. "Now, I'll be showing Priscilla-"
"I'll be showing miss Locke the procedural growth of a 1-Vestan, and then we'll go back to the camp. Okay?"
"Sure! Have a nice day, Priscilla!", said the Rabbi.
A few moments after Jacob had left the dark, moist room, Frank looked at her associate. "Okay, now, really, what's your deal?"
Priscilla had the decency to seem distressed. She gnawed idly on her lower lip, a sharp exhale leaving her lips, as she resisted the urge to blurt out something most likely anti-semitic. "It's just hard, is all… like, imagine going to work and having-" Frank was staring at her, his withering look all the warning she needed; Locke caught herself this time. "-A bunch of talking velociraptors among your co-workers— "
"Sure, fine, okay, never mind," Frank half-shouted at her. "Consider this: you are now the only real, decent, genetically sanctioned human being left from your universe. Everyone else here is a subhuman moron. How do you feel about it?"
The woman did not back down, but neither did she try to rise to the challenge. After a moment, she nonchalantly shrugged, "I'm fine, really. It's not like I'd blow up in the street and start attacking them. Any way; there's more of them than there are of us. Of me, I mean."
Frank stood there, looking at that insensitive, brutal idiot. Then, he slumped.
He pretended to be adjusting his mask just to avoid making eye contact with the woman. Typical. He was calling out on somebody's douchebaggery and, a second afterwards, he felt guilty about it.
He rose his gaze again to meet hers. She remained immobile, what little could be seen of her face completely devoid of expression.
"I said fine," he started. "-no, wait, never mind, that was a bit dickish of a move on my side. you being new here and all. But you'll have to begin accepting stuff and adapting as soon as you can. People around here are certainly not what you were used to, back there. You'll have to grow used to it quickly."
She nodded, no change in her expression, still that dead look on her face. "Working with velociraptors would be cool."
Oh for the love of-
"So!", shouted Frank, faking a joviality he did not feel. "A repository?"
"I'll be 'performing daily tests' on the water to 'make sure it is potable.'"
"They will frown at that."
"That's not my problem; I'm pretending to be an inspector, you're the one keeping them out of my hair."
"You will have to talk to them, Locke."
"I can talk."
"Outside your cover. As a person."
Priscilla looked at the ceiling and added nothing for a few seconds. Then, she said:
"I'm not new to this. I know what the Foundation does—"
"The what?" She blabbered.
"The Charitable. Many of us who work around anomalies, or abnormalities, whatever," he snorted at his own confusion on the topic. "Anyways. Most people around here don't want to be compared to the other Foundation, so they talk of the Manna Charitable Foundation as the Charitable. You know," Frank arced his brows and lowered his voice to a complicit whisper, "to avoid unpleasant comments?"
Priss narrowed her eyes slightly, mouth slightly hanging as she stuttered through an incoherent stream of murmurs. Then she shut her mouth and sighed.
"I get it, really. I just don't know how you people work. Or anything about Mister and/or Missus Manna and Charitable. How about an actual tour of the place?"
Frank sighed. "Sure, a full tour on the Charitable's fun, fun story. Just… just keep in mind who you are working with. And for. Okay?"
"I'll try to adapt." He observed her for a moment. "Really."
Frank studied her a bit longer. Nothing on her freckled face told if she was being serious or not. The security executive member forcibly coughed and led her out of the darkroom.
"Okay," he said while walking down an aisle, still soft and humid. The only light came from a few holes in the ceiling; their edges were dying and falling down, thinning and slowly becoming the glass that would cover several skylights. As Locke joined him, he said: "From the top. You know what the reports and the pamphlets say. What do you know of the people who work with the MCF?"
Frank laughed at her confused expression. "Oh, God, now I understand why they found me funny… See, they call that, that face you are making, a skipper face. Foundation Agents always get all 'the hell' when they see something they don't expect, and most of all they get surprised when other people tell them that being unprepared is okay."
Locke glared at him. He kept talking.
"I mean, sure, it's better to be prepared, but us field agents have been told that we have to on edge, and trained to stay there at all times," he declaimed, "and then there are people like the volunteers of the Charitable, who go through life with wide eyes, large grins and the feeling that they are making the world a better place, and tell us to tone it down a bit. It's hard enough to do our job, don't be such sourpusses."
"Too upbeat for a warzone?"
Frank shook his head. "See, you don't get what kind of people work with us. It's what I was saying earlier: why is it 'good' that you admit you don't have a clue on what these people do here? It has lots of good things, the Charitable. But the one thing it doesn't have is patience for self-absorbed jackasses who think they have all the answers or go looking for sychofants. People like you or me, going on a power trip because they found a skip of value and they offer it to us… it happens, you know."
Frank looked at one of the immature skylights. A rapid blur passed by over it, perhaps a bird.
"They go and look for the MCF and sometimes they find us, instead of being found by us, which is kind of the norm. They want to prove to us oh how great they are, and how they are basically wizards or have a pen that manifests cake by drawing it or are going to topple all industrialized countries and would like us to help them pick up the pieces and create a wonderful, beautiful, Utopian tomorrow." He laughed humorlessly. "Well, it's not that people from the Charitable hate fellas like those… hell, if we found them bleeding to death in the street we would try to save their sorry asses. But that's not the point, the point is that pretty much everyone in the Charitable is already self-absorbed and will never, ever help somebody feel better about themselves by giving them a place among them and patting their backs. They don't have the time for those types."
Frank stood over the rough dark green floor, almost feeling it move under his boots.
"Only people who admit they are flawed, people who want to help, people who are desperate to help, get into the Charitable. And those never leave it while they live."
Locke crossed her arms, seemingly bored again. Frank had learned to associate the gesture to the limits of her patience. She confirmed it in a boorish tone.
"You talk too much, Westinghouse. Explain it to me so I don't get yelled at later."
Frank felt a jolt. "It's been a while since anyone called me that. I mean, MCF people do call me that when they're making fun of the stick they see up in my rear, but-"
"Eh, right," Priscilla said. "Just 'Skipper' then?"
"Or Frank, yes. I guess they'll start calling you Skipper, too," Frank ventured. Priscilla looked around for a moment when she heard that. "Although we could keep your past work history under the wraps, if you prefer."
Priss grimaced and glanced around briefly, "That would probably work better. I'm with the W-Ph-O, right?"
"No, don't pronounce it like that," Frank quickly corrected her. "Even the Parahealthers themselves usually say it like 'phooo', sort of like what everyone does with the World Health Organization, you know…"
"That sounds stupid. And I know what the WHO is. It's just…"
Frank nodded. "Wouldn't have one of those over there?"
"No, it's not that, they probably did. They just wouldn't bother helping the people who'd really need help."
"Then who the hell did they help?"
"Dunno. Never really bothered learning about it." She walked forward, and Frank closely followed her.
The aisle turned into an open hall. Once it was complete, the gaping holes would be covered with secreted hard glass and the floors would be beautifully polished ceramic tiles in a checkered pattern of dark green and white. However, as the couple walked through it, it looked more like a cave covered in moss than a hospital.
"Isn't it amazing that we are going to build operation theaters in here?" Frank wondered out loud.
"In a third-world-hell-hole like this, it'll be a wonder to see them achieve proper aseptic conditions."
"Asept-right, that too," he grumbled. "Don't call it a hell-hole, Locke. Or at least avoid saying it out loud. It might be a mess of a place right now, but people live here."
They stared at the large central opening that would become the door. Two large branch-like growths were forming at each side of the hole, each one slowly swaying in the wind, looking for its pair to grow into a door.
"Uh, well," Frank started, "the World Health thing? They usually pronounce it 'who'."
Priscilla pondered this in silence for a moment.
"Sounds stupid," she muttered.
"Might be. But people keep calling it that, which is why we have to do it too, or else-"
"I was just complaining. I know how to blend in, Westinghouse."
Frank noticed a certain amusement in her words. "Ah, yes, sorry." He stood in silence, thinking. "Crap, we got off track there. Quite honestly, I can't put what the volunteers are like in simple words. Too many, too different. Besides, you'll meet them these days. I'll just tell you Mission Branch 101 over diner."
They left the maturing hall.
Outside, the building area was filled with other figures in white-green overalls, some of them taking measures and making sure the growths were taking the correct shapes. Frank and Priscilla saw several pipe-like tendrils slowly burrowing themselves under the dusty ground, a few millimeters every second. One of them had found a particularly resilient rock right underneath the surface. The cracks were clearly audible as the Mason Mold grew through the smallest relieves on its surface and pulverized it, turning it into a soft but firm support for the pipe itself.
Priss stared emptily, and gave out a quick giggle, "That's funny. Just… letting it sprawl and not containing it."
He nodded at that.
"Jacob would tell you that it is perfectly controlled and safe. You will come to think of it as cathartic, believe me," Frank said. He felt himself smile at the thought; those words came from him? Woah, sudden perspective shift. "Although I do understand what you mean, it's uncanny."
They walked towards the perimeter fence exit. The entire building area remind hidden behind it, a wall of white-and-brown tarpaulin sections hung from metal poles. Each piece of the two meters and half tall wall sported the logo of the Manna Charitable Foundation. The surrounding terrain was lower than the hill were the Opal-1 Work Group was growing its project, so a simple fence was enough to grant a certain measure of secretiveness to the entire operation.
Priscilla studied the fence with a critical eye.
"Hey, Westinghouse. Is that enough?"
"Standard issue tarp. Never mind its stopping power, Locke, we don't need to stop anyone," Frank said. "The ones that would take the Assets away from us would not be stopped by any means we have. And both locals and refugees know the Charitable is working in here, and that it will be best for all parts involved if they simply stay away from it until whatever we are working on is ready."
"Why yes, they are afraid. Of us," Frank stated, matter-of-factly. "Of what we can do. There is always some measure of fear and distrust when the Charitable comes to town. They know we bring weird stuff, like buildings that grow from the ground up. And we had a Work Group around past year scouting the area, or rescuing people or something like that… they know what we do, even if they don't know exactly what we do. Add rumors at that, and we have a certain, uh, protection," he ignored the times when that had gone wrong. "They take it rather well, by the way. Imagine we used this stuff in the middle of an industrialized country."
"You'd be lighting the biggest fire the Foundation has ever seen."
"Sure, sure, good old Skippy would be there in heartbeat, wouldn't he?" Frank raised a hand as if swatting the idea away. "Well, no. Wrong. We have operations in every country of the world, including North America, Australia, Japan or Europe. Take Torres, go no further. That guy is Argentinian, how do you think he first came to us? There was a MCF recruitment post in Catamarca, Argentina, population three hundred thousand or so. In the open. Where was the other Foundation that day?"
Priscilla glanced at Frank, brow furrowed. "You take this shit public?"
"No, that's not this. Not anomalies. We are overt about us working a non-profit… but our funding methods are so tortuous that not even the Foundation, the other Foundation, can follow the money. We operate under hundreds of different institutional aliases here and there, most of them ephemeral. It's all smoke and mirrors, but the Charitable keeps its ears to the ground and recruits people that worked for other non-profits or gave the finger to fat cats, champions of the establishment and people like the Foundation." Frank stopped talking for a moment. "Crap, I didn't realize how redundant that was."
"Redundant? The 'fat cats, champions of the establishment-"
"-and people like the Foundation' part, yes, that." Frank and Priscilla said, simultaneously. They snorted at her own scene as they reached the entry checkpoint, a makeshift room made out of a prefabricated container with UN logos and surrounded by the tarpaulin walls.
Inside, they discarded their masks, that were picked up by a bored Yusuf, who also stored them with their dirty overalls once they took them off.
They walked out into the open. Less than a kilometer away, the center of Laascaanood was a busy place, now completely visible to them. Until then, the city had been relatively free of the Milking Maggot epidemic. It remained an important active population center, despite the large number of residents that had left the place after Somaliland had attempted to take the place. According to Mission Watch reports, it was quite emptier than past year.
"See that?" Frank said. "Those are forty thousand souls. They are hurt, sick, sad, and some times even mad enough about it to pick a gun and do something stupid."
"My point is that we are needed."
"Spoken like the better man." Priscilla said. Frank's brow frowned at that.
"What? No," he said. "No, no. I'm not here 'cause I am the better man, or… I'm just a guy who happened to be necessary here, the better ones are, you know," Frank made some gestures at the hospital, "in there, growing a surgery room and stuff. And down there in town, making certain mothers don't die while in labor and children live through meningitis, and… and they don't even realize they are the better people. They are here because they feel they are not better. And I'm not like them. No, I'm here because they needed an unlucky idiot who wouldn't trust his own shadow and happens to know how to avoid fights." Frank sighed slightly, pondering what he had just said. "I'm not the better man, I'm just a bouncer."
"A bouncer for 40,000 without a gun? You'd make a shitty bouncer."
"Right!", he answered, his face suddenly split by a fierce smile. "You got how wonderfully ironic that is, didn't you? We don't even have budget for guns. Why would we?"
"I mean if you have no guns, no military personnel, no support of any kind…"
"Then what am I doing here?"
"Yup," Priss thought for a second, "Gathering intelligence for them, then?"
"That's not entirely correct, but that's sort of what I do, sure." They started walking East, following the Southernmost limit of the building site. "They expect me to be a security guard without any violence, you know why? 'Cause that's not how security works for these people. They feel security is secrecy. They aren't threatened by locals, or armies. They know we treat them all, no question asked. True, some times there are stick ups. True, some times our guys get the shortest end of the stick and they get shot by accident, or bombed by accident, or accidentally kidnapped for ransom. It happens, all NGOs working around here know it and take it like champs. You know what makes MCF different? That we have to expect others."
"Others. Marshall, Carter and Dark cronies trying to buy, extort or steal our assets away. People from Insurgent cells trying to manipulate the kids into joining their side by telling them 'oh, sure, you are delivering babies, nicely done, how about changing the world, really changing it, tipping the balance of power'? Even people from local 'liberator' groups with ORIA sponsors. And, of course, the Foundation. The only way to keep them away is tread lightly."
"And you just let them use you to keep their shit secret? Why?"
"Secret? Ah, no, that's what they do back home at the Continental Branch offices. Cover our activities as if other NGOs did it, create misleading or false media reports, stuff like that. What I do is keep them Mission kids discreet enough, just in case a field agent goes into the area and casually hears about us."
Frank suddenly felt very tired. He stopped and turned to admire the sights. Priss did the same. Laascaanood extended before them.
"Look, every Work Group takes their own decisions in the field. They practically make procedures as they go. Some of them are good in keeping a low profile, and some others have anomalies or talent for stealth. But a Work Group that builds hospitals?," he let out a guffaw. "Right, hiding that is a tough one. And you don't even get to buy the terrain and cover Laascaanood in amnestics, right? So, what to do? Well, I visit the local officers, people from other NGOs, let them know that we are here on a little tour. And what they have to answer if anyone complains. And drop a few well placed shillings in the hands of any agents of higher ranking players that I think will be around."
"That's it?," Frank watched her vaguely amused face. "No 'Thank-You' card with a five dollar bill?"
"And the Charitable's 'good' reputation," he nodded. "That's about it, yeah. We trust each other enough not to give ourselves up, trust that the locals know they want us to be around instead of selling us out, trust the other mayor players to think there is nothing around here and, if you like to do that kind of thing, pray."
He started walking again, with a tiny sigh.
"Sometimes it doesn't work. It's all a very thinly disguised lie, partly successful because nobody is looking for us and because looking for us is not worth the effort. Not unless we screw it up big time, anyways. The world is a big place and they don't mind us being here and using some breadcrumbs to save a few victims of tragic circumstances, for as long as we do our let's-all-be-friends gig instead of getting them to rise up in arms against the 'circumstances'. Our biggest defense is that they prefer to work closer to home."
They reached the corner of the construction area. Beyond it, in the northern side of the city, there was a nascent displacement camp. It had begun to form last evening, the inexpressive faces shocked with grief and confusion, sometimes anger, already gathering there. The Work Group workers were already erecting some large tents for the refugees with the AMISOM troopers.
Frank knew Jacob's specialists would be there too, discreetly planting prototype underground Vestan Seeds that would create sewage facilities and an irrigation system for crops further north.
Frank knew Opal and her own specialists had been there all day, quickly finding every single case of the Sour they could find and supplying any relative of the patients with prophylaxis.
Frank knew Olympe and his guys would be there about now, patrolling the newly born dirt roads that separated row after row of tents filled with displaced people.
Frank wondered if anything they could do would be enough. Hundreds were coming into the camps' limits as they watched.
"The worst part about them staying home instead of coming here, though?" He said, looking back at Priscilla. "It kind of works for us, too."
Night was falling in Laascaanood. Frank had shown auditor Priscilla Locke, the special WPhO — pronounced 'phoo' — delegate for the local Manna Charitable Foundation Infrastructure and Health Mission for Laascaanood, all the impressive work the volunteers were doing to get the refugee camp up and running, and prepared for the hundreds that were sure to come over the next days. Upon the Work Group's arrival, a coordinated chaos had erupted within the camp its outskirts, where a handful of mobile clinics, operating from jeeps, and food distribution centers, run from the large MCF semitrailers.
They had time to talk to the AMISOM commander, the acting chief of the Federal Republic and the elder council of Laascaanood. All of them were concerned about the affluence of refugees to the camp, which housed three hundred people already, all of them fleeing from the Sour outbreak. Frank conferred with them in the name of the Manna Charitable Foundation, assuring their commitment. He warranted that the epidemic would be stopped in Laascaanood with no risk to the town or their operations and told them the hospital would be ceded to the city whenever it was staffed by non-MCF personnel.
From there on, all powers that be in Laascaanood were bent on cooperating with the nice, helpful people from the Charitable.
"Giving away our stuff like it wasn't planned!," Opal would say later, in that rare cynical streak she occasionally displayed, "The best way to make friends!"