Everything had gone by so fast, just as Priscilla preferred. It gave her little time to sit and reflect on what had happened. How did people react when faced with world-shattering trauma, irrevocably changing their lives forever? Priss had gone to her sister and gotten a new job. Was that appropriate? Was that what you were supposed to do when you lost everything but the clothes on you and the quiet friend who'd saved you?
Seated in the back of the vehicle, she had plenty of time to let those thoughts infest her. The weight of it all pressing down on her was starting to make her crack. Even as her face remained expressionless, she felt her face start to burn, and her vision start to blur.
"Hey…" Frank noticed, catching on quickly that she was starting to lose it, "Hey, come on. You're gonna be okay, alright?"
Priss brought a hand up, pressing her knuckles into her eyes and turning away. A violent ripple of emotion twisted her guts, making her shudder and wretch before quickly collecting herself. As slowly as it had crept over her, it faded away.
"What are Nazis, Frank?" Priss asked suddenly.
"You don't have Nazis where you come from?" He asked incredulously. At her silence, he went on, "Bad bunch, them. Came around in Germany in the 1930s, led by a guy named Adolf Hitler. They were really into white supremacy, touting the 'Aryan race' as ideal, and had a particularly strong hate for the Jews. They started a war with pretty much every other superpower in the world, and would've taken us all down if they'd just listened to that most basic of military principles; divide and conquer."
"They started a war and the Kaiser just went along with it?"
"You don't have Kaisers either?" Her voice started to warble. Every little difference seemed to compound on her, like flecks of mud smearing on a wall, spelling out in messy brown letters 'You don't belong here.'
"I'm not really an expert of history, so I don't know… Pretty sure the Kaiser stopped being a Kaiser after World War I. Probably kept the title, but as far as I remember from history class, they started electing presidents between the wars."
Priss found her breath coming more easily. Talking like this helped, she realized, "Where I come from, the first World War didn't really technically end… it just faded away as both sides started signing ceasefire agreements for longer and longer periods. Main problem was the Qing… they were eating away at Russia and Central Asia, so Europe just started losing focus on fighting each other as Russia threatened to collapse. Then the Japanese invaded the Qing, and suddenly all of us were taking sides again in a new war."
Frank snorted, "Sounds familiar enough. Then again, people are people, no matter what universe they come from."
Priss clenched her jaw tightly, losing all taste for further conversation.
People were starting to call her that. It was easier than "Dodger", or "Spiffy".
Dodger turned, finding a little boy coming up behind her.
"You pretty. Pretty girl should have pretty things," He extended a little hand out to her, imploring her to take it. She did, thinking it was just a friendly handshake. The boy slipped her a little golden bracelet.
"I don't have any money."
The boy didn't say a word, calmly taking it back, and walking away.
The whole village bustled. People looked happy and moderately healthy. A perfectly normal sight in any relatively stable east African village with an NGO operating nearby. The difference here was that people were looking well-fed.
Shut your racism, she thought to herself. But it still stuck out horribly—people in a poor African village were looking absolutely plump all over. Some had even dropped by the hospital with severe stomach pains, nausea, and heart troubles. Diagnosis: re-feeding syndrome.
They'd been starving for weeks. Suddenly they were stuffing their faces.
They didn't bother hiding it, either. It was a gift from Allah, as far as they were concerned, and an attraction—an opportunity to shill shit to curious foreigners, and sell food to hungry people from other villages. At the center of the village, a massive circle of blood was surrounded by short fences made of wire and cloths. A lion lay at the center of the blot, beige fur painted brown and red. It was a big male, with a healthy mane and thick limbs. It lay on its side, eyes half-closed, purring sedately, as its intestines were being pulled out and chopped like individual sausages, and cooked on the spot on a great grill. Other animals were around it as well; a wildebeest, two fat buffalo, and a line of dogs that had been shaved and hosed down, likely to hide their infestation of mange and scabies. All were bloody and missing chunks of meat.
"People are eating it fine?" She asked Yasir, "No problems, no side effects?"
Yasir nodded to the grill, "As long as it is cooked thoroughly, it is fine. Some people ate it raw. They died."
"Suicide. Or killed by their neighbors, self defense, yes? They attack their neighbors because they want to be killed by the neighbors. They call this 'suicide by cop' in the Law-eight-Order."
"A TV show, yes? American. Law, number 8, then Order."
"That's an ampersand. It stands for the word 'and'. Law and Order But yes, I know what you mean."
Dodger put a hand on her face, covering one eye and rubbing it reassuringly. The other had to watch. She wanted just one instant of normalcy. Just one quick flash of the lion's eyes widening, of it yowling in pain, anger, anything other than sedate pleasure. Anything just to make it fit in with what should have been.
It did not yowl, it did not roar, or snarl, or whimper. It closed its eyes and started to sleep. Some people nearby froze and watched. Had the beast breathed its last? Was it finally going to die? Then its tail flicked, and it farted noisily. The people near it laughed, and went back to cooking up its organs.
"The people who cut themselves, how did they do it?"
Yasir said something in Arabic, then pointed to the lion and the wildebeests near it, "Just like that. They lay down happily, and cut themselves open."
"But did they die? The animals are doing that and apparently not dying."
He shrugged, "I don't know. The people cut themselves open and die. The animals are cut open and do not die."
Dodger was already putting it all together in her mind, visualizing the food chain in action, as the small animals offered themselves to the bigger ones, and the big ones wandered into villages to offer themselves to the bigger ones still. If they regenerated their flesh and organs, it meant their organs would have to be removed first. The cat she'd seen yesterday had had its guts spilling out of it, caked in dust, while other parts of it were regenerating.
And she still had to report to "Do-Your-Best" Lindsberg. And to Kone.
"A theory… The people who ate the raw meat and cut themselves open died because no one would eat their flesh. The animals who do it have their flesh eaten, and the flesh grows back."
Yasir was starting to look queasy, the horror of it all starting to get to him, "Meaning the meat is infected with something?"
"Maybe…" People were eating the cooked meat fine; if the meat was infected with something, fire could handle it well enough, "Or maybe the meat starts to die, and rots if it isn't cut out quickly enough. Necrotic flesh gets infected, the person dies. Maybe the animals know this, and that's why they want us to keep cutting them open and eating their flesh. Easy to see it as a gift from Allah."
"I do not care what these people say, this is not a gift from Allah," Yasir turned away from the lion, "God did not cause this. You did."
Before she could respond, he added on, "I am not blaming you, or the Charitable Foundation. But something has gone wrong and I am certain you are the cause. This way, hopefully, you can fix this. I do not know how I can help more."
Dodger tilted her head slightly, groaning to herself in frustration, "Just keep people coming to the hospital. Especially people who've been eating from these animals." She pursed her lips, and started to turn away, "Just in case."
Priss pursed her lips, looking at the dimly lit room around her. More like a tunnel, but it was tall enough for her to stand atop Frank's shoulders with enough room to spare. The massive reservoir was in the room behind them.
"Don't worry, we've got the suits," Frank assured her, prodding at the Level-C hazmat suit the two of them wore.
She looked down at the Anabasis, worried about it getting sick from something brought in. She caught herself again—it's not alive, you idiot.
She knelt down, starting to adjust the knobs on the device. The hazmat suits were an unnecessary precaution; she'd used this thing plenty of times before without getting infected with anything. Given that it "merged" with living counterparts here, it wasn't likely to churn out something that would be so utterly foreign that it would spread magic smallpox around the world in a month.
Frank seemed to be reading her mind, "Wrong calculation and you might end up dumping a few tons of boiling hot water down on us. Germ-free, but probably best not to get caught with our pants down. Remember: we want water. Doesn't matter if it has heavy metals, rare earths or six-meter long tube worms on it, the hippo will take care of it. Just get us water, and all of this will be worth it, okay?"
That made sense. Then she realized that meant the Foundation-that-Was apparently didn't care if she accidentally killed herself in testing, either.
She pulled the lever, feeling it give way as if it had snapped off. The Anabasis came on, pouring its anemic light out over its selected area. Nothing appeared to happen.
"Try it again?" Frank suggested.
She pulled the lever again, and waited. This time she saw something. "Oh, fuck."
"What is it?"
She got up, heading over to the center of the room. Frank followed, crouching down beside her. Blades of grass poked out of the ceramic tile floor, some seeming to occupy cracks and small spaces, others seemingly merged with the tile itself.
"Don't worry, Locke, the tiles will grow back. Still… a little higher next time." Frank suggested.
"You're not helping," Priss complained, heading back over to the device.
She aimed it higher, adjusting the height setting while leaving the others the same. This time a long patch of grass filled a quarter of the room. No sound, no shimmering of the air, no phasing into being or dramatic entry. The room was all ceramic tiles, then quick as a frame of video, grass was in front of them.
"At least the gardener can enjoy the AC while mowing the indoor lawn."
The grass was thick and unruly, nothing like a well-kept lawn. She could easily get her foot stuck in the matted mess of roots, and probably have a snake slither by and squeeze her ankle.
"Look," She pointed, crouching down again. She indicated the tiling, just at the edge of the grass. It was a few inches higher in elevation.
"So it's replaced the tiles as well?" Frank scooted closer, pressing his fingers along the edge of the tile. It didn't feel like a smooth cut, but more like a natural break. The edges were jagged, and some of the tiles had cracked independent of the sudden change.
"Good thing there's nothing below us, then. I'd hate to have to explain to anyone downstairs how they got pelted in the face with dirt and grass and whatever else is in this. Where is this from, anyway?"
Priss pulled a stalk of grass out, clean from its root, "It should be native. From another timeline. Given that we're underground, that timeline's probably had an entirely different geological history. Lower elevation."
"That's gonna be a problem, is it? For filling the reservoir?"
She huffed a sigh, and started calculating in her head. Right away the numbers mashed into an incoherent mess. Getting it precise would be a problem. She was mostly just concerned with getting pure water in. Then she stopped herself, realizing she didn't need to fill it all at once, but could dump in water from the same spot over and over.
"No. If I find an aquifer, I can just adjust the height, and start bringing it in overhead."
"Got it. You can always settle on seawater, too," Frank took several samples of grass, sealing them in a plastic bag, "Let's do a few more tests for the Hippo's sake, then head on out of here before we start warping in wild dinosaur-riding lions or some other crazy thing."
The creature was asleep as they woke it — a fact it didn't enjoy particularly, as sleep allowed it to speak with its companions from the great beyond, the age-long members of the Center for Transcendental and Eschatological Research. It was the dead of the night in that tiny corner of their world, and they were moving it from the vehicle they had tugged its tank in.
It listened to them carefully.
There was the woman of the mean voice that had waken up the day when they moved. She felt exhausted. She hadn't been sleeping well. The creature knew why that was and… yes, she carried the thing in a backpack. But she was not alone.
There was the grey man that had been lifted by Color around him. It might had a pure, immutable soul, but the creature could not discern it; guilt defined him. Shame defined him.
There was one with a pure, immutable soul. That soul sang and grew and changed and bloomed, and the creature wished it could know more about him.
There was one with a pure, immutable soul. That soul waved as a long cascade of green silk across the horizon; the laughing woman, who was not laughing.
There was the one that had been taking care of it. He was sad and oh so very lonely in his sadness. He could not cry any more.
There was one more with a pure, immutable soul. That soul had fruits, ideas ripe for the taking, dreams light as balloons that lifted him out of its body.
And then there was its own self. It had a pure, naked, immutable soul. It shined with the strength of a thousand minds. It had cast away what it had been — body, form, memory — when it was alive to become this. It was a soul, distilled ego, almost pristine I.
So its thoughts went as they moved it into the strange and comfortable not-building, matter a shadow for its strange consciousness; the not-building was special, too, for its walls and floors were as strings of bright gems mounted inside them. They sang a tale it liked: seek the faults, seek the faults, seek the trash, seek the trash, help the people, help the people, eat dirt, make stone, eat scum, make glass, eat waste, make iron- It went on and on and sounded happy. Had it had the time to talk to them, it would have. They seemed to have a very satisfying life.
The kind of life it wanted.
And it was taken down, the tank barely fitting inside the tight fit of the hole, several ropes tense all around it. One of those pulling to let it slide down let go of the hefty load, and the rest had to let go too so they would not be hurt. The tank broke as it crashed against the ground, but the creature itself waded the dry concrete with the water that was within and fell twelve meters down.
Into the water.
And then it began to cleanse.
Joyful, it thought -cleanse the water, seek the impurities, seek the blemishes, cleanse the water, make it clear, make it salty?, no, make it flavorless, make it grey?, no, make it pearl?, no, make it transparent, make it so it does not taste to them, so it does not harm them, help the people-
It would try to talk to the strings of light surrounding the water later. They would be interesting friends.
The creature's tendrils grew and grew, slowly filling the water. It took as much blemish as it found; and much blemish was taken. As it reached the walls of its new home, its comfy tank now lost forever, it heard a ruckus over it. The creature listened to it.
The people checked on it, the laughing one laughing again, the brothers shaking hands, the sad one relieved, the grey one talking to the mean one… concerned? They all left but the mean one, who took the thing out of her bag.
The creature stared at them. It did not like them. It had grown an eon as a soul un-carnate, and was wise. Even if it had made its new brain for a higher purpose than to worry pointlessly, everything it, the soul, knew, was that they did not belong.
Then the mean one started pulling on the lever. It tried to stop them, the mean one and the thing. It knew, with sad certainty, the body it was in would not be strong enough. It was going to happen — again.
Priss stared at the Anabasis. No matter how much she kept pulling the lever, it seemed to have broken down. At best, dust would drop into the cavernous space targeted by the device. The Hippo — not a hippo — was wading in the shallow water, watching her intently.
"What did you say?" She asked no one in particular. As soon as the words were leaving her mouth, she had forgotten who she was talking to, if not herself.
The Anabasis didn't even look remotely human. The core of it looked like a leaf blower without the long tube for precise blowing, with knobs, text, and a lever that looked a century or two out of date. She couldn't imagine thinking she had been talking to it. It had to be stress.
Whoever had said it, they had the intended effect—Priss was suddenly very much aware that she was alone and unwelcome, in this country, in this world. The place was probably bugged.
"Hey guys," She waved to nothing in particular, as if a camera were pointed straight at her face. Then she gave the Anabasis another strong pull of the lever. Finally, it started to work. A long cube of brownish water materialized over the reservoir before dropping with a firm splash into the shallow tank, the echo lingering in the large room. The Hippo just stared at her.
"Come on. Eat dirt. Stop staring at me. You're supposed to be blind."
The hippo kept staring. She pulled the lever again, bringing in another cylindrical mass of water. Then again. And again.
The hippo wasn't dead— it waded in the water, keeping up with the steadily rising water level. But it kept just staring at her. You don't belong here, it seemed to be saying.
Priss fumed, and flung her notepad at the Hippo. It hit the creature just behind the head, prompting it to quiver, and start to move, emanating a deep whining sound from it. Priss thought it sounded like "mooootherfuckeeeeerrrrrrr…"
"Who you calling 'motherfucker', motherfucker?" She snapped back at it. Immediately she felt stupid for shouting at it. Most likely she had just imagined it saying that. How could it manage syllables in a single monotonous drone?
It was starting to suck in the water, setting to its work cleaning the water. Hopefully it would be able to handle any unusual microbes or bacteria in the water. If not, they'd have to boil it all, and probably return the Hippo. It seemed not to notice her anymore, happy to float about, absorbing like a sponge and swelling with water. A second later, it became smaller, as bubbles emerged from under its stumpy legs.
Priss lowered her head, sighing heavily. She pulled her legs in to herself and rested her head on her knees, one hand on the lever, cranking it back again and again, continuing to fill the reservoir. She was starting to lose feeling in her arm, the ache from continuously cranking starting to ease, when the Hippo 'spoke' again, "loooooooooooooook…"
She lifted her head, and her stomach clenched. Something was in the water. It had come in with the water. The Hippo backed away, as the creature emerged from the brown depth.
It looked like a man, covered in fur, with hands like a badger or a bear. Its chest was bare, looking like the bottom of a turtle's shell. Its head was the most off-putting, being little more than a hairless oval, with two big black ovals stacked one atop the other. The upper one looked like it could have been an eye. The creature stared at her and she stared back, both unmoving. Both scared.
She broke the silence first, not knowing what else to say when confronted by such an alien creature, "Get out of here!"
To her surprise, it started to swim towards her in a hurry. That's it, I'm dead, she thought. She'd been expecting Anabasis to bring in some kind of boogin or cloud of poison gas to instantly kill her, like a warning from God to stop dicking with time and space. The creature hoisted itself up out of the water, pulling its weight up onto the central platform. It took a moment to look around, before hopping up onto the ladder and climbing towards the exit.
The Hippo went back to gently gliding through the water. Priss started to sob quietly.