The expanse behind the hospital's hill was filled with people. Priscilla allowed her escort to guide her again between the tents that housed them that last night. People were preparing their move to their new, temporary quarters, grown-built from the mass of Vestan moss of the hospital. Volunteers laughed and chatted, carried their stuff in cases, bags and boxes and flocked to the road cleared specifically for the Programme.
The volunteers gathered between the tents, forming small groups in the declining light of twilight. The only illumination came from a bonfire set in the center of the tents; its flame flickered as if it was alive, casting shadows and loading the air with a strange, resin-like taste. There was an almost festive ambient, like a school trip.
Priss frowned at that. She didn't remember any school trip. That comparison was just another stray thought of those she had been having since she arrived.
"Come, on Locke, you're missing out!"
Westinghouse had turned to get her out of her absorption and gone back to check on someone around. He was being unbearably upbeat; Priss supposed the tone of the event was getting to him, too. She was supposed to meet as many of those people she hadn't met over the day as possible. They had been visiting locals left and right, but only then they had the time to stop and talk to the other MCF members.
Overall, seeing the camp was confusing, and the fire was somewhat distracting…
She almost gave a jump when Frank tipped her arm to get her attention. He was smiling.
"Come. That is Alba Escudero," he said, pointing at an olive-skinned woman with dark hair. She looked very young. "I think you saw her earlier working with her mates on the temporary school tents-hey, Alba!"
The woman turned to them from the small circle of volunteers she was conferring with and waved a greeting. "Hey, Skip! Pleasure to meet you, miss-?"
"Locke. Just Locke."
"Got it, welcome to Somalia!," the girl shook her hand. Priss noticed that, while she wasn't as annoyingly bubbly as Desjeux, she looked really happy.
She shook Alba's hand as she innerly mused on how could anyone be happy in such a place. "Pleasure's all mine."
"We were everywhere today," Frank said, a grin coming to his face. "It's been a long day, mind you."
"I hear you." Alba snorted as she stretched. "We've been setting up a small school for the kids that will be staying around a bit longer. You know, the ones that have their parents down with the Sour and all that. I'll be taking care of it."
"I heard," Frank nodded.
"Well, it's been a nightmare." She conferred. "People around are nice enough, but some of them were looking at us real bad, Skip."
"They gonna be a problem?," Priss intervened. The other woman shook her head.
"Nah, not really. It's always the same the first days."
"Did you get the books?"
"Sure," she was grinning again. "It's gonna be fun, I can tell you that much."
"Yes, they are. An Australian publisher kindly give us prints of books that haven't sold well every year." Alba offered Priss a pleasingly calm smile. "Ah, if I may give you a piece of advice…"
"Yes?," Priscilla said, uneasy before the almost affectionate tone of the woman, who came closer to her.
"Love your hair, but I'm afraid you won't keep it shiny like that for much longer," she added, as she pointed at her own hair, tightly put in a ponytail. "It's not just the lack of time to take care of it every morning, wind and dust are a nightmare. I wonder how you've managed to-"
"Hey, Alba, you coming?," called one of the people from her group, who were already leaving the place with backpacks filled with whatever the Work Group pickups hadn't taken yet. The woman excitedly nodded and giggled as she picked her own bags.
"Talk to you guys earlier, Olympe is moving the cubes down the mountainside near the camp, and he is using the friggin' Old Orange to move them!"
"Ah, right, we'll go and watch later," responded Frank. "See you."
"What's an Old Orange?" Priscilla asked, when the volunteers left the circle of light cast by the fire. Frank shrugged.
"You wouldn't believe me. You'll see. Ah, that there, by Opal's side, is Lila Afwerki," Priscilla saw a large black woman dressed in a white-and-green headscarf and a long, white tunic with geometric designs. "She is another Health and Prevention specialist, like Opal, and doubles as our cook. The stuff she makes? Delicious, you bet it is. More if you take into account how scarce real food is around here this days… They must be busy discussing the problems they had with the clinics today, let's leave them alone."
"What problems? Shouldn't I go?"
"You mean, as a Parahealther? Nah, they barely had any active cases of the Sour yet. Mission Watch warned us soon enough this time," Priscilla could feel relief permeating his voice. "You can ask them tomorrow. It's just that whenever you set up camp-oh, hello, Jacob!"
They met the Rabbi's as he carried his own bags from the small tent he slept in. He was out of breath. "Frank! Miss Locke. Sorry, can't stop, these are quite heavy-"
Frank waved goodbye and looked at Priscilla, who remained silent. "What?", he asked.
But she knew it wasn't nothing. It was the same thing, every time. In everything.
Priscilla looked up. A clear, infinite night sky met her gaze. She had never taken the time to learn the place of every star in the sky, but even the firmament was unfamiliar to her. Everything is wrong.
She shook her head. It's just another hemisphere. You're not used to Southern hemisphere constellations, that's all.
Frank ignored her troubled look and kept moving ahead, towards two men who argued in loud voices in a mix of English and Italian.
"And over there you've got the Momio brothers, arguing again." Priss caught him before he reached them. "Of course they would be arguing, they simply don't stop… hey! What are you guys doing?"
Both men turned around to face Frank, talking non-stop.
"Frank! We've traced the limits for the Myrmidon grove, but Martino won't shut up about water distribution and-"
"-they won't bloom without a full water supply, Rico! It's pointless to seed them if they just don't grow, I told you-"
"-there is little we can do about that, let's start airing the soil at least! The Myrms can re-condition it-"
Priscilla felt she didn't have time for that. She was wiped out.
As the two men argued, a small group of people at the other side of the bonfire caught her attention. They were three completely bald women dressed in black robes. Their MCF vests, neat white and green, couldn't go worse over the robes.
The robes had symbols she had seen before.
Frank had slumped and crossed his arms at the sight of the two Italian brothers' loud arguing. He tried raising his voice. "Hey, you two! Hey! I was going to introduce you to-" As he saw that the brothers ignored him, the ecSec shrugged and turned to her. "Ah, fine. Come, Locke, I'll introduce these morons to you at some other time… ah, sorry, what?"
"Who are those?", she asked, wary. Frank didn't seem to notice her apprehension.
"Ah, those are three of Olympe's lot. Most of them are ex-GOC. Well, these are Satanist scientists, mind you."
"They belong to the Church of Satan, Scientist. It's sort of a sect, a religion and a demonologist academic group. They study their stuff from the outlook of the scientific method."
"Satanists? In a charity."
Frank met her eyes. He seemed confused. "Yes?", he eventually said. Priscilla felt a bit more nervous than she should.
"Why would Satanists join a charity!"
Frank blinked a couple of times and covered his mouth with a hand, musing about her question.
"Well, they can help. I mean, true, they are all about hedonism and stuff, but-Well, MCF used to be pickier with these things in the past. All that did for us was letting out good specialist material and taking normal people who, let's be honest, had it rougher than us today because they knew little or nothing about anomalies," he said in a confidential tone, as he conducted Priscilla towards the three women. "Just guts and good intentions get you killed around anomalies, you know this… but it took the MCF a long while to figure it out."
"Satanists, Westinghouse," Priss said, almost pleading, "Satanists with pentacled robes." Frank shrugged and took her behind one of the closest tents. He looked irritated.
"Listen and try to look beyond the scary black robes, okay, Locke?"
Priscilla crossed her arms and stood in silence. Frank shrugged again.
"Those three were accepted three years ago, for a one-year rotation, but came back for more. And here they are, specialists now. Exorcisms were tough before they came around- yes, exorcisms," Frank insisted to Priss' arced brows. "That we don't like to call them demons doesn't make their methods less effective. And it's not that they use rituals and circles all that often, they usually say they debate with demons until they fucking give up. Their sect is antitheistic. They want to kill anything that looks like it is God or a divine creature so it doesn't influence human identity."
Priss felt a shiver down her spine. The ecSec took notice.
"Yeah, I know. Can you believe they and Torres actually get along? And Mirra and Garziel used to be GOC operatives, too, both of them. Not that they talk much about those times. They prefer to keep to themselves, I guess… Anyways, I want you to meet them."
"Why?," she jumped almost immediately. Priscilla didn't want to go back to meeting with sect leaders in extravagant clothes who spoke in too many words. She didn't want to remember her sister, the subhuman mongrel.
Frank looked at her, making a face.
"Mirra and Poitriburg are Health and Prevention specialists and Garziel is a Security trained volunteer. You'll have to meet them eventually, so you better get to it now." He stood. "Besides, I have to talk to them. Now, are you coming or not?"
Priss strayed for a moment, but finally followed him. As the man closed to the three bald women, he succinctly greeted them. "Hello, people."
The two taller women stood up and smiled at him. The other one, Priscilla couldn't but notice, seemed to be vacantly looking at the flames.
"Hello, Frankie." The woman looked at her and bowed in what Pris hoped was a respectful gesture. "Madam. Garziel of the Church. Pleasure to have another healer on board."
The other one did the same. "Poitriburg of the Church, madam. Ask us anything you need."
Priscilla looked at them. Despite their clean-shaven heads, both women seemed to be perfectly agreeable, clean and completely unlike any cult leader she had ever met… and her sister had been one.
"Just-call me Locke." Calm down, you are not this impressionable!
"First time meeting a Satanic Scientist?," the one called Garziel said.
"It shows that much?"
"Don't worry, it's fine."
"It's the robes, isn't it?," the other one said. "Ziel, I've told you the Focus could work just fine with us wearing a scarf with the Sigils or something. I've talked to Afwerki about it-"
"Don't besmear the Marks, Poitri," Garziel cut her. For an instant, Priss thought the woman sounded rather restless.
At that point, Frank stepped forward and said, again in a low, whispered tone: "Just to make sure, did Jacob ask anything about us entering the lab semitrailer yesterday, guys?"
"Nope, he didn't," Poitriburg said, also whispering. "You entered it?"
"For a moment. Had to discuss sensitive stuff and it was the safest place around."
"Don't be pushy, Garziel," the other woman said. "Did he ask you?"
"Nah. Man can't see us anyways."
"It's just you, Garziel, 'cause you always want to argue theology with him. He talks to me and Mirra just fine."
"Is that Mirra?" Priss interrupted, pointing at the third woman.
She was standing in front of the bonfire, had let her head fall forwards and was audibly mumbling in a grave, unnatural tone. It was distressing to say the least, but Garziel nonchalantly shrugged at the sight.
"Her? You aren't concerned, are you, ma'am?" The robed woman lazily scratched her face. "Don't worry. She's just meditating. Better than sleep, just a few minutes a day and you're better than new. Actually, I think I could use the rest…"
As they walked away from the three women, who silently stared at the fire, Locke lowly murmured towards Frank's back: "Is that how they keep to themselves?"
He half turned back to look at her, saying in an amused tone: "I think that's the one time they've told me anything else than 'good morning' and 'it's fine, Frank.' They usually are cryptic and all about their own personal growth and stuff like that, but they talk a lot to Opal and she says they are cool. I sense that your, uh, authority as a Parahealther might have swayed their opinion."
The stretch behind the growing hospital, filled with activity, was rapidly left behind them. They now walked through countryside, towards the dimly lit IDP camp. Locke raised her voice.
"You told me we would come and get to know those people. I can't say we have."
The executive officer shrugged again. Without even turning back, he replied: "They are all busy organizing, and in an hour or so they'll all be either sleeping or rotating to watch over the camp. For peacekeeping, you know. Rape and violence are frequent in refugee camps. Believe it or not, that's hard work. They will hit their bunks once they see them. Today was exhausting for everyone," he said, as he stretched and yawned. Priscilla tried to not imitate him. "Besides, it'll be better if you meet them tomorrow, when they are working. As an auditor and stuff. To keep your cover?"
She contemplated her options, and gave up almost instantly. She felt tired again.
"Fine," she finally said. "I do have to go around and pretend I ask questions and take notes and stuff. Resting now can't hurt."
They kept walking, now in silence. The stars above them filled the skies now, the Moon a bright, tiny slit over their heads.
Priss' mind was numbed after a whole day of listening to Frank talking in three or four languages, reinstating old friendships and making new ones. In the blur, she had been regaled with an interesting practical class on diplomacy adapted to the Sool region — which had been mind-numblingly boring indeed — and on how the MCF interacted with local authorities everywhere. Frank knew when to be tactful, where to press his interlopers and how to do so; and, of course, had a certain talent for what he called "private contribution to the cause." But for the most part, Priss had just been along for a crazed, hot ride.
And she had been carrying her backpack with an almost monomaniac obsession.
What if they assault us?, she suddenly thought.
They got to a dirt road that run parallel to the west side of the hill, near the camp. The cubes were, in theory, being planted there that very night. There weren't any lampposts, and Priss wasn't used to the measly light of the moon.
Every shadow was a threat.
The ape brain took over, and primal fears, the old friends pushed into the unconscious of the no-longer-a-prey humankind, reigned supreme again.
Now, as we walk down the hillside. It's dark here, and we are just two tired whites just outside a village and a camp filled with desperate people. And we're not armed. It would only take two, or three, or more if they are trained and trying to be silent. They could take us down and have us with our pants down-
As those thoughts started to gain way into her mouth, Priss noticed Frank was breathing laboriously, noisily and passing his left hand over and over his right chest. Suddenly, between a step and the next, he fell to his knee.
"Man, what's up with you?", she nervously asked. "Don't just fall here, this is not-"
"I know, I know. It-it'll just go away in a moment, okay!? Let me breathe! Jesus-"
Priscilla looked down to him. In the now dim, far light that came from the bonfire, his face looked contorted and unnatural. He returned her gaze, all while trying to calm his breath.
"Sorry. It's-I have a condition, okay?"
"Panic attacks condition or heart attack condition?"
Frank shivered for a moment, but in the end, he just shrugged. "Just-just panic. Well, sort of. Been having them since a little before I left the skippers. My mother had them too. Guess it runs in the family," he admitted. "It will go away in a moment."
"Can you stand? I'd hate to be mauled by a tiger or something."
Frank stuttered and laughed nervously. "A tiger? Here?"
Priscilla looked at the now crouching man, feeling anger and shame filling her face. Fortunately, it was dark. How quickly that has become a good thing, she thought.
"Fuck you, what do I know? It's not even my universe."
Frank just laughed again. Then, suddenly stopped and seemed to listen.
Priscilla stood alert, too. "I can hear it, too," she whispered. They heard an engine. Soon, a pair of headlights appeared, quickly coming to them along the road.
It was a big MCF pickup, loaded with something large, covered in tarp and, judging by the way its heft leaned the open bed to which it was chained, heavy. Both relaxed, relieved to see the logo of the Charitable on the doors.
The vehicle stopped near them. The driver, a tall, black skinned man in a dark form-fitting suit, stepped down. "Good night, miss Locke. You okay there, Frank?"
"Yes, Frans, I'm fine," he said, managing to sound calm again, "just a bad step. You know Locke?"
"Sort of." He came closer to them, and extended his hand to shake Priss', as he said in a lower voice: "François Olympe. I've been told you are here on Lindberg's orders, not on the phoo's orders, and that he is your minder. No comments, no questions asked. Is that right?"
"Why did they tell you?", Priss said, suddenly feeling uncomfortable at the thought of sharing her cover with too many people.
"What if Frank died? They needed an insurance escort", was the man's nonchalant answer. The other Security Executive laughed at that.
Feeling little to no trust in what he said, Priss carefully began to shake his hand, only to retire it quickly. "That is a glove, right?"
Olympe simply turned back to the pickup and got in, leaving the question in the air. "I'll be using the road to move the cubes now, Skippy. Jacob told me they're fresh and ready for transplant. Better stay with the others, they are just ahead."
"See you two later," Frans said, and started the pickup again. It accelerated until Priss couldn't tell its dark form from the rest of the obscure nighttime.
Then, she looked at Frank. "How's the leg?"
"Shut up and help me up."
After a few minutes of silent walking, they saw the flashlights of those volunteers waiting in the area designated as "quarters" in the general planning for the camp. Twenty four squares, roughly three meters in side each, had been drawn with white chalk. They almost glistened under a couple of humming floodlights, fed by a roaring field generator.
Frank, apparently recovered, started talking to some of his… friends? Workmates? Priscilla couldn't make out any formal relation between ranks within the Work Group, nor was willing to go over there and mingle. Not yet. She did not feel comfortable with such thinly defined relations.
"Nice night we're having, right, Locke?"
Priss turned to see Sarah Desjeux coming to her. The three Satanist Scientists and that other woman — Lila, she thought to herself — walked behind her, loaded with bags and cheerfully speaking in a language she did not recognize. The Health Executive member split from her little coven and went straight towards her.
"It's dark," Priss said, without thinking.
"Well, that's a night for ya!" Sarah answered, punctuating every word with a melodious inflection that annoyed Priss. The grinning dwarf kept talking, now in a more normal voice: "You've been assigned a one-person room, by the way. I thought you could use the intimacy, although we will use half of it to store some supplies," she admitted, with a slightly less bright tone. "We're short on storage space, after all."
"Nil desperandum, Opal," Frank said, coming back from his conversation with a distant smile. Priscilla glanced at him for an instant and asked Desjeux:
"Food and medical supplies?"
"Oh!" Sarah clapped her hands and tightly gripped them together. "And books, and herbs, and spare parts for the trucks, and Vestan seeds, and-"
"And supplies in general, Locke," Frank cut her superior, who looked somewhat grumpy at the interruption.
"Oh. Ok." Intimacy at its finest. Joy. "As long as you knock before coming in to pick-"
A loud noise was heard from the top of the hill. For some reason, Priss thought it sounded like a gigantic ball of compacted metallic scraps that was suddenly turning into a massive flower, blooming and tearing itself apart while doing so. It was followed by a quick, deaf thump that Priss felt more than heard.
People around laughed and clapped when the thumping was heard again, and again. Those were footsteps. Massive ones.
The exhausted Priscilla simply couldn't gather the energy to be worried, but still asked the obvious questions.
"What was that?", she asked Sarah, who had joined in the clapping.
"That?," she said, as a loud thundering noise echoed around the place. "Oh, that was Olympe, riding the suit! An old thing, mind you, but how he managed to get the Servants of the Silicon Nornir to accede at the petition from the Coalition Undersecretary is a secret he'll take to the grave, I'm sure."
She heard the thumping again, now coming closer to the camp. Soon, Priscilla saw a light, two of them in fact; they looked like the far headlights of a car, but they swayed with every thump and moved too fast to be rolling safely down that slope.
Suddenly, as it came closer to them, she could make out the four meters tall metal behemoth.
Its long, multi-joint arms embraced the concrete cube it carried like it was made of cardboard. As it came even closer to the range illuminated by the flood lights, Priss could see it looked like a massive, skeletal gorilla that moved in a misleadingly ponderous way; even if it looked like it was slow, that was just an impression created by its sheer bulk. It had moved faster well faster than a car could have rolled over that terrain.
The thing looked skeletal, she thought, because it looked like it had been stripped down to its basest elements; it was all hydraulics and a bare stressing, reinforced metal structure with hanging cables covered by transparent plastic-looking membranes. Priss could now see a few hissing actuators in its hands and feet and a transparent canopy in its center, inside which Olympe was cramped, almost forced into a fetal position by the many controls and levers that surrounded him.
"The Fifth Global Occult Coalition Donation! A perfectly functional and thoroughly disarmed test prototype Orange Suit! We call it the Old Orange!", Sarah happily screamed as the massive robot gently placed the cube in the ground, neatly parking it on one of the drawn squares. "PTOLEMY, well, the Coalition engineers, discontinued it because it had too high a profile. Too noisy and all that. Good for the transport of large crates, though, better than our meager trucks! Even if we have to limit its usage to night-time."
Priscilla realized she was gaping at the scene. "The Coalition gave you a mech!?"
"It may look like a beast, Locke, but it is a harmless beast! Besides, it got them lots of good publicity within their own organisation! PR is important when your job consists on killing people, you know."
Priscilla watched as the thing walked back to the hospital, probably to get the next cube. "Is it going to bring all twenty four cubes here? Somebody will see it!"
Sarah shrugged and giggled as Frank said: "Maybe, but a bit of indiscretion can't be compared to having a proper bunk so close to the camp, don't you think?"
"Why not sleeping in the cubes up there, in the hospital? Where they were grown!"
"There are a few beds up there already for the people that have to be there. These are getting placed here so we can use them as our temporary living quarters. It's better if we are closer to the camp. That's where we are needed. For as long as we are here, we'll live in there," Frank said.
After his colleague was done talking, Sarah added in a confidential-sounding tone: "We would use the Vestan to create bigger places, or entire cities, even! We did, for a while. But they drew too much attention. The cubes aren't good to have entire families living on them, unfortunately… and more than a few would bring attention to us, so we'll be using them as storage and putting our bunks in; two or four per cube. That way, we can watch over the camp and sleep at the same time!," Opal raised her hands and sang: "Mul-ti-taskiiing!"
"Ignore her, she's joking," Frank said. Almost immediately, he added: "Mostly."
The volunteers stood away from the robot's path as it brought cube after cube to the camp. Mesmerized, Priss watched it for about half an hour before being gently pushed by Frank, who mentioned her cube was already rooted and ready to be inhabited.
Everything was covered in white-green ceramics, or something that felt like it. There was a diminutive toilet and a small sink. There was electric light.
There was a comfortable-looking bunk.
She didn't even noticed it was still lightly wet and warm as she dropped into it, already asleep when she reached its surface.
In the rapid and extravagant moving operation, two details went overlooked.
First; there were six more cubes that had to be moved to the other sides of the projected area of the camp to use them as food distribution and storage centers and clinics, but the Suit had consumed its batteries. Without the kind of power necessary to recharge them immediately, the Work Group had to put it back into storage. Discreetly covered in the same tarp used by Olympe to conceal it, the Old Orange was placed in a patch of bare ground behind the hospital, where its bulking mass collapsed into a ball of solid wire and thick metal structure with that characteristic screeching sound. It would wait there until the power plant, programmed as part of the hospital and the water purification plant, was completely grown and ready to work.
Second; and this one went entirely unnoticed. Several small rodents ventured a trip inside the previously closed and guarded perimeter of tarpaulin fences that surrounded the still-growing hospital. Wherever the cubes had been planted, a quickly dying paste of Mason Mold emitted a sickly sweet smell that exerted on them an overwhelming attraction.
Even if most managed to leave on their own, the next morning several of the small animals were found lying on the already dry hollows where the cubes had been. After laconically asking his team of volunteers to go back to work, a preoccupied Jacob Torres gathered them, burnt them and, just to make sure they were not a problem, fed their ashes to the Hippo. The creature filtered them perfectly, while keeping what Jacob felt it was an accusatory silent.
However, as he feared and kept to himself, the damage was already being done.