"So, you work for the Bigger Man?"
The Momio brothers, Enrico and Martino, were a couple of tall, dark, handsome men with a knack for satire and a disagreeable nature, or at least they used to have them. Twice in recent years, they had evaded the Roman carabinieri when their works, too offensive to involved political sensibilities or too anomalous for the other Foundation, became well-known; the third time, however, they were in for a massive fine or long-term incarceration — if the skippers didn't get to them first.
"I mean, no offense, but the Bigger Man is always about answering to law and norms and all that… and shit, we were tired of it."
Fortunately or not, their talent was noted by an executive member of the Italian branch. That's when the Charitable came in their story.
"They don't respect anything, politicians. Justice? An inconvenience. Laws? Tools, no, clay. Art? 'Frivolous.' Frivolous!" Enrico spat at one of the pulsating mounds of moist, odorous soil; almost without skipping a beat, he kept speaking in his strongly accented English. "If you trivialize art, what is left to respect? Well, plenty, they say, like the person of the major whom you keep insulting!"
He kept sinking his boots deep on the mud surrounding the mounds, his combat pants completely ruined, slowly moving back into the dry dirt of the track between the rows. Then, he walked towards the next row; the plants were starting to emerge there, their leaves exuding a clear ichor-like substance that dripped down into the ground. Rico carried on narrating his tale as he bent down to check on the budding leaf green already shying through the soil. "After that we had the major's house surrounded on a thousand perambulating friggos when she was hosting a party for il capo della mafia, all of them citing every lie she had told during the elections. And you know what? Just their faces would have made the prison worth it."
"Damn right it would!" That was Martino's voice, graver and soft in comparison to his brother's. It came from across the line of already blooming mounds. "But it would have also been boring as hell, Rico! Or old Patroni would have got us shot. That would have been too little boredom and for too short a time right there."
Enrico briefly laughed at Martino's words and retorted with a quick string of words in Italian, which was answered with another quick laugh from between the thickening greenery of the next row. Then he noticed Frank's expression and… Priscilla's lack of one, apparently?
"We were just making a silly, unnecessary, uh… pun. In Italian."
"I'm not a skipper anymore, Rico. You don't have to explain yourselves," Frank said. "And Locke is here just to see how we work so she can put a good word for us with the phoo. Not exactly 'the Man', you see."
"Right, sure, they are not the capitalist, imperialist, hegemonist Man, but I would still like to see those Coalition fasci-"
"Anyhow!" Frank clapped his hands once, a weary and slightly threatening smile coming to the already wasted corners of his lips. Rico got the message and adopted a mocking 'it-was-not-my-fault' grin. "Why don't you explain Locke what you're doing here, gentlemen?"
Rico shrugged. "Bene, this way. The mounds and the buds are already self-sustaining and the Vesta piping is already grown and working, so I can now show you the most interesting part of this camp in action, miss Locke."
"Just Locke," the woman answered, her face behind the optics of a Nikon.
Oh, yes. The Nikon, Frank sourly thought. How lucky that Alba had one to spare.
Locke had insisted on carrying a camera and a small red handbook with a pen as part of her cover. Frank was irritated about that, and he knew she would get why; the woman, a fresh recruit — no matter how much of a refugee or a benefactor she might be — was taking pictures of an ongoing programme as if it was the only logical thing to do. Frank, despite his best efforts to suppress his paranoia, suspected she was deliberately trying to get under his skin.
As if she could sense his thoughts, Locke took a picture of one of the most developed mounds, which was already covered in white and green leaves, gently waving as the soft stems underneath began to mature and its already hardening roots drilled down, avidly searching for water. Frank winced at that flagrant security breach — Will I ever stop thinking like this? —, but said nothing.
Then, she glanced at Frank with those dead, steely eyes of hers and followed Rico, who was beginning a toured visit of the orchard. He soon was hid away by the greenery around them.
"Some brainiac called them 'Myrmidon' seeds, because they make plant-like things that move and may take the form of people, see? Like the legendary army made out of teeth and all that." As he went around its bulk, Enrico's voice sounded from behind a magnificently well developed specimen. It was a six feet tall log entirely composed of long, knotting roots that turned into thick stems of green, living plant with no bark, like long tentacles that bent slowly to no wind. Together, they were thicker than Rico, who was now carelessly hugging the 'tree' and sticking his head out from behind it. "These ones here grow faster 'cause they have been tweaked to do so."
"Tweaked?" Pris asked. Frank looked at her.
"Genengineering and some anomalous fertilizer. Opal can tell you the details on that second part."
"I thought she was a medical doctor."
"She can be a doctor," Frank needlessly replied.
"Man, that she can be!," Rico said from the closest row of Myrmidon plants. "Anyways, Opal told us to make sure they grew strong no matter how much her kids pushed the greens, so—"
"Right. She has a few trained volunteers with her assisting or replacing her with esoteric stuff," Frank explained.
"Isn't that dangerous? Teaching them all this. They might spill the beans. Shouldn't it be confidential?"
Rico, at first confused or appealed at the statement, soundly laughed in their faces and turned away, leading them between two of the largest Myrmidons in the orchard. The ecSec grimly stared at Locke and said: "I've been telling them that for years. They usually think that infiltration just doesn't happen. Know what? It seems to be true. No defections as of yet."
"How can you tell?," she said while jotting something down in her book. "Where were the docs on these things? They aren't listed in the programme."
"They are, as non-abnormal assets. That is because the Momio brothers explained them to us in detail; we know how to use them, so they are not really abnormal to the Charitable. Well, and…" Frank's voice came to a halt and resumed only in a much lower tone. "You see, the Momios don't like to admit it 'cause these things can churn literal metric tonnes of fruit in a matter of weeks once they bloom. Any fruit they program them with. It's really cool and all, but the real problem with it is the cost."
"I don't see any costs here."
"The soil gets depleted real fast, Locke. The seeds got discontinued a few months back because of that. These do not bypass physics as the mold does, they can only make local soil far more, uh, agreeable to their own metabolism. Then, they die. Or worse, uproot themselves and look for another place to plant themselves."
Both looked at the rows at both sides. Their motile roots could almost be heard as they devoured the ground.
"That can't be good. Can they move now?"
"Nah, unless you use very specific irritants or the soil becomes too acidic or dry, they just stay put and happy. With proper irrigation and clean water, and you know where those are coming from, we can create food by the truckload in minutes. Now, for the soil itself, I've been told by Dodger you can help."
Locke jumped. "Dodger," she said, suddenly tense. "She's coming here?"
"Ah, you know her? From the entry meeting, maybe? She's an observer from Continental. Sort of a wild card. As most free agents are, I guess-"
"She agreed to kill my sister if I tried to defect you people."
Frank's brow burrowed. "Say what-she threatened your sister in the middle of a meeting?"
Locke shrugged. "I said they knew where my sister was if I tried anything. To make them trust me."
"… yes, on second thought that sounds like something she would say," the ex-agent reminisced on how the self-centered, big-mouthed maniac had gotten herself into the MCF, getting a new life in the process. "Stories," he whispered, and immediately said: "She is arriving today. Now, for the testing on your thing, whatever it is-"
"We're almost there," Locke lowly growled, grasping at her backpack with her free hand. "We'll have our testing chamber done in days, right? It's a matter of time."
"I hope so. Because these orchards are our food provision for the next months."
Locke looked at her escort, furious. "Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"I did. Over breakfast. You might have been distracted," Frank answered. His voice sounded slightly concerned. Locke slowly blinked, and for a brief moment, the hand holding the camera shuddered.
The moment was over all too soon, interrupted by a fuss raised a few rows away. She moved away, walking towards the Momios' angry shouts. "Great, fuckin' goompahs are really working for the greater good here-"
"Tone it done, will you!?"
The Momios argued over one of the mounds. While the others on its row were already showing its first leaves, that one remained as a tight coil of snake-like vines that shivered occasionally. As they came closer to it, Locke and Frank saw the vines were so tense that they were tearing themselves apart, a bright white liquid oozing from its injuries.
Enrico moved away after a particularly angry shout directed at Martino, who remained behind, looking flustered and with his arms crossed in a firm position. He cried back a single word and then realized the presence of both his superior and the WPhO officer. "I'm sorry, Skipper," he finally said. Martino was a green thumb, good with plants in general and particularly good with the Myrmidons. "Rico thinks we should burn this one."
"It looks sick," Locke contributed. Martino shook his head in a negative.
"It's only developing in an unexpected way. I say we wait and see how it goes. He says it's not gonna go anywhere, because aberrations end up killing themselves. And I answer to that, good, then there is no problem! And that way I don't have to kill it."
Frank looked into Martino's big eyes and placed a hand on his shoulder. In a way, both of them were good kids, but Martino was particularly nice, almost naive. "Listen, Tino, this one might become greater, and I get why you want to see it turning into something bigger… cooler. And maybe any other day you'd get to do that. But we're trying to feed hundreds of hungry people, not experimenting. Please, take it somewhere else and freeze it or burn it, okay?"
"I know, Frankie. It's just-" The young anartist scratched the back of his head and sat alongside the mutant plant and its mound. "It's just that we are forgetting that these things could be better than what they are. I'm thinking about applying to a Research Group next rotation."
"Does Martino know?", the ecSec said.
"Si. That's what we argued about, actually. He's mad, for sure."
Frank noticed right then how Locke was looking at Martino. Her face was a particular blend of polite confusion and brisk impatience.
Sighing, he slowly moved towards Martino and sat with him on the mound, suppressing decades of hard-earned distrust and revulsion towards anomalies that demanded him to run away, get a torch and incinerate that unnatural weed. Instead, he asked: "Martino, tell me so miss Locke knows about it… why did you join the MCF?"
Martino looked up, seemingly puzzled. "That? Well, we joined because we were offered a place to hide from the other Foundation and the police and all that."
"Sure. And why did you stay?"
"You've been with us for three years now. With this Work Group, as specialists. You could have gone back home. Why did you stay?" Frank got out his notebook and checked a date several pages back. "Right here, I've got it: First and only Koons Donation, relayed by Momio brothers upon their entering O-1 WG, three years and a month ago. Why?"
"Well, see, old Koons had an idea about an exploit that-you see, it was a giant dog made of flowers placed in front of a big museum! Only he wanted it to walk inside the place and fill it with pee and lick everything and stuff, but he only managed to make it slobber and dribble on everything, but he only managed to make it slobber and pee and stay still out of the museum-"
"Martino, Mar-Martino, I know all that!" Frank half-laughed. Locke was making an utterly priceless face at Martino's fast rambling, and he couldn't help but to laugh out loud. He managed to calm himself enough to add: "Just-just tell me why, man. You could have gone back to Italy by now, or wherever the hell you wanted with your specialist wage and your anart. So why did you stick with us?"
The younger Momio reflected at those words for a few moments. He finally rested his head on a hand and said: "Well, art is all about context, we used to think. Put an installation here, it means a thing; put it there, it might change its meaning or remain the same, depending on the context you give it. The person's context changes the meaning, as well. But when we joined the Charitable we were submersed in context, pure context. People suffering and dying every day in agonizing yet natural, avoidable ways. And we saw anart should denounce, condemn their suffering-but it would get shut away, shunned by the audience who did not like to see a piece from such a context. Besides, it had been done. It is being done. And only a few people, most of them already working to help poor countries, get it. I mean properly, really get it. Most shut it out because they don't like what it talks about."
Martino scratched the back of his head again.
"Art denounces, but by using anart, we could save those people, on this very context, on this very now, and on every possible context it would be a statement on its own and a pragmatic approach to the problem of transmitting the perspective of the artist to the public… to a different public."
Locke raised her hands. "Wait, wait-that means you think you're doing art even now?"
"Sure," Martino answered. "We may not make the best pieces, but really, I can't figure out a better place to put these on, don't you think? These trees are the army the richest people in the world would not be able to hire. An army made with the only purpose of making healthy, fresh food for people in need. Trees that will pick up their own fruit, pass it over to the firsts of their row with perfect discipline and feed thousands. Besides, we are learning a lot about our craft and getting bits and pieces from people around us. Live and learn e tutta quella roba."
The anartist looked at the rising sun shining through the higher leaves of the next row, already beginning to develop the light receptors that would turn them into rudimentary eyes, the first bulges on their vines betraying the places where buds would slowly grow into self-fertilizing flowers and, in a few days, edible fruits.
Frank knew what was going through the mind of that man; never mind that the soil would become barren in months, never mind that the fruit would only partially cover nutritional deficits in the area; people from the camp would feast and there would be songs and the Momios would listen and sing along.
"True, not many people get it. But these people get the piece, they get it better than most artists, even if they don't know it's an installation. But oh, e'arte. Purity of concept, good execution, an attentive audience." Martino slumped at both of them. "On this, Rico and I agree wholeheartedly. What else can an artist ask for?"
As they left both Momios to another of their usual discussions, Priscilla and Frank left the orchard and headed into the camp. Most of the rows they had seen were already grown into low bushes, bustling with waving leaves. Priscilla had taken a few more pictures, furiously jotted down notes and kept very quiet.
They passed the small yard that served as a field school. It was filled with small, fascinated faces who stared at Alba Escudero's exaggerated gestures and florid words in a mix of Somali and Arabic; she was teaching them English. Later, Frank knew, she would teach them about the cycle of water.
Tomorrow, perhaps about art and beauty. He glanced at Priscilla.
"You alright there, Locke?"
"Look, I'll have to go for a meeting with my contacts from the local banditry. It might take me a couple of days. These guys are generally agreeable, we give them limited medical care and drop a few veiled threats to their persons and their souls and they stay away from the crazy Westerners who want to cure the Sour."
Locke raised her head with an arced brow. "Their souls?" Frank smiled.
"Good, you're still with us. It's not literal. Well, mostly not literal. You might not want to know."
"They buy that crap," she answered. It was not a question.
"Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, but most chiefs and warlords agree that messing with things they can't hope to control is a bad policy. True, sometimes they try, and that's when we call the GOC. That's another incentive for them to stay the hell away from here."
"They are scared," Locke smiled. "I've said that before, haven't I?"
"Yup. You can't blame them, the Myrmidons are supposed to be food and they can uproot themselves and fight, too."
"You mean they have done it before?"
"Another reason to discontinue them. No weapons in our camps, remember? Anyways, when I leave, I'll have Olympe report to you. He is the French Guianan guy, the one with-"
"A mech arm. Yeah. Kind of hard to miss him."
"Well, you'll be with him for a day or two. You'll see how he keeps the peace around the place."
"A bouncer with no guns, a soldier with one arm," Locke sneered. Frank stared at her with an entertained grin.
"Har, har, you've said that before too, haven't you?"
Among the recently arrived MCF members, there was a very specific woman. This woman had entered the almost finished hospital with casual walks, dressed with an MCF vest over a white-and-green volunteer t-shirt and long but light, comfortable pants.
The woman's name was not important. Only a few of her coworkers knew it anyways, and most of them were really, really far away. Here, there, in that place, she was known as Spiffy Dodger.
While she had helped unloading the trucks and happily joked about how well the camp was going, what had attracted some exasperated looks from those of her partners who couldn't get a joke, Dodger had a single objective in mind today. It was a simple concept. She had to check the Vestan stuff, report to Frank Westinghouse as soon as good ol' Priss wasn't around him and keep an eye on how well it was all going.
Dodger knew the assignment was half a punishment and half a way to get her to do something of use. She preferred it that way, since being back home would only bring even more attention from her ex-employers.
They would be asking questions about all that money that had suddenly appeared in her new employers' hands. And in her own hands.
Fortunately, there was a place in the Charitable for anyone willing to help, and Spiffy Dodger was so very happy to help all those do-gooders and their magical moss. As she walked the almost-finished halls, looking the veined walls and curve corners with a critical eye, she intimately scorned to herself: "I've seen weirder."
As she muttered it, a man in a white overall saw her and came to her. "Ah. Sorry, miss, you shouldn't be here, it's not finished yet!," Dodger heard him said through his mask. He sounded like a school teacher. "And, oh dear, you should be wearing at least appropriate footwear, this ground-"
"Rabbit, right?," she cut the man's rambling. "Or was it Rabbi? I kind of like the jumpy attitude. It's cute."
Torres looked at her for a moment, his eyes squinting behind the little pair of glasses. "And you would be?"
"Dodger. Mission Watch." Dodger took the green-and-black ID out of one of the vest pockets. "I'm here to reinforce Frank Westinghouse and his new best friend, the… auditor."
She smiled a predatory smile.
"And, of course, to watch over things. You know… report back at the IB and all that. Would you be so kind as to tell me how are things going over here? All okay, I'm sure?