My sister, my host, kept me hostage.
Let me tell you about my life, just a short while ago.
There's a point in time in everyone's life where they are not free. Whether through fault of their own or not, they endure being dependent on another, becoming a burden. The host and their burden. The host can be sympathetic and the host can be cruel and arbitrary. It's a fine art, however. Too much and the burden will break free, finding support in the arms of others, and the host will fall to the strong arm of the law.
Up until a short while ago, I lived with my sister. She was the host, and I was the burden. And she hated it. She hated me because she loved me, and you cannot hate something you do not care about.
My sister is smarter than me. She is clever, sharp, and brutally efficient. My sister, my host, kept me hostage.
I had a job, low-paying. No way I could afford to live on my own. For about an hour or two each day, I'd have her place to myself. For an hour or two I had peace and tranquility and safety. When she came, what did she have to say?
"Hi, honey! How was your day?"
"Enjoying yourself, idiot?"
"Get the fuck over here and get your fucking shoes off of my fucking rug"
"You know how much I love you, Rhiannon, right?"
"Don't even talk to me."
The answer is all of them. All and none. If it were just abuse and torment, maybe, maybe, maybe you'd be able to endure. Adapt, expect it, prepare yourself accordingly. You can never prepare yourself with this Host. There was no pattern, no way to gird yourself.
On good days, it's obvious right away. "You stupid ignorant fuck!" It begins. On bad days, you have to look hard for it.
You can't let yourself be seen, whilst you spy on your own sister, watching how she moves and touches things. Are her hands shakin'? Is her jaw taut? Is she hissin' and sighin'? Is she slammin' doors just a pinch too hard? Do her footsteps stomp on the wood floor just a bit too loud?
Then, at the very least, you've got enough "intel" to prepare yourself accordingly. Make sure you've got a good reason to not be near her. Television's in the main room, no luck there! Lock on your bedroom is a joke; anyone with a strong grip can twist the knob and pop open the door in a jiffy. "Why the fuck are you sitting in here playing games? Get the fuck up and help me."
Then comes the dance. You have to do it just right, if you don't want your head bitten off. Don't you dare be as profane as she, that'll get her dander up. You can't say nothin' to her, that infuriates her worse-in' than cursin'.
Too sweet? She'll eat you by your own light.
Too sassy? She'll disembowel you with her dagger-like tongue.
Too sunny? She'll bury you.
Too somber? She'll cook you and eat you and vomit you back out.
"Hello, sister of mine. I will help you as you wish."
"Who the fuck you think you're talking to, you smart-ass fucking cunt? You think you're cute talking like a fucking retard? You want me to treat you like a fucking retard?"
Then comes supper. God help you there; it's the same song and dance, but this time she's armed.
No conversation? ""Great company you've been." Cold, venomous snark.
Complain about your day? "What do you even do? You barely fucking work as it is, and you're bitching to me because your boss kindly reminds you how to do your job better without fucking it all up and down like you used to do?"
Rave about your day? "That's so sweet; I had to put up with the stresses and pressures of a real job. How's it feel knowing you get paid to sit in a chair and do shit-all on a computer for five hours a day?"
Weather's been nice, hasn't it? "You'd fucking know, you'd never set foot out of the house if not for your joke of a job."
Sometimes a tongue-lashin' is all you get. Sometimes she'll scoop up her plate and slam it against a wall. Sometimes she'll snatch up your plate and slam it on a wall. The poor plates suffer regardless; she dumps them in the sink and lets drop the utensils. Such a clatter, you'd think she was practicin' for a band audition. There ain't a dish in the house that isn't chipped, cracked, dirtied or uglied in some way.
By the end of the day, you've got sanctuary; she spends a good hour or two workin'. Then its time to sit in bed and watch TV until the day's fatigue takes hold and she passes out. She's a light sleeper. Damn you if your tiny little footsteps make the floor creak and you wake her up.
How do you escape? Get her while she's vulnerable? "We need to talk." Words are exchanged. She's calm, pleasant even. She breaks down and cries.
"You can't leave, Rhiannon. Momma told me, just before she died; momma made me promise to keep you safe. 'Look after your sister, always. Always keep her safe. Never let her go.' I will keep you safe."
How do you turn down the tears of your skin and bone and flesh and blood? You give in and think, maybe this time. Maybe this time… what?
Maybe she'll change? Maybe it'll be different?
You're smarter than that. You know it. The real reason is you can't afford not to. The mental and emotional degradations are a luxury next to physical deprivation that awaits you, pretty little girl livin' on the streets.
How did this cycle of torment and abuse end?
I found you. You, who came to me. You, who listened. You, who decided that I mattered and that I should be kept safe, not because of an obligation forced upon you by blood or oath, but because of a unifying belief in the goodness of mankind and the richness of a world in which all men and women of all types and stripes, races, sexes, ethnicities, religions, decide that they all matter. Not because of an obligation forced upon them by species, but because they choose to accept all as family.
"You fucking believe this? I can't fucking believe this." Priscilla Locke kept the page steady, not wanting to tear it up in a petty show of emotion. That didn't stop her hand from trembling.
"It might not be her words" Sharpe offered, "But it's definitely her style…"
"You think she has some kind of point? That any of the fucking… that anything written here is fucking true?"
Sharpe's eyes darted over to the wall, where a wet smear marked where Locke had flung a tray of food in rage. They were standing just beside the porch leading up to the entrance of the school. Locke caught her gaze, jaw clenching.
Sharpe shrugged, "You did just slam your tray of food on a wall."
"You're fucking saying —"
Sharpe put her hand on Priss's head, pressing to keep her back while trying to disarm her with a smile, "I'm saying you've got a bit of an anger problem, and it's just like a dirtball like her to exploit someone's flaws for a hit-job like this."
Priss's nostrils flared as she turned away, running her hands through her hair to calm herself, "It's true, though."
"You know how she is. She never lies for the sake of lying. Everything she says and does has some manner of truth mixed into it. And when she's out to get you, she digs her claws into you and doesn't stop until she's clutching two heaping handfuls of meat. I should have taken the rest of her teeth when I had the chance."
"Dude, she's your sister."
Priss turned and glared at Sharpe, hands trembling again, "Wasn't it you who said blood doesn't matter a damn? That 'psychopaths like her' exploit family connections to keep people suffering?"
Sharpe stepped back, "Yeah but like, there's a limit."
"To how long you let her keep fucking herself up. You can't keep watching her go on while you do nothing. I mean, what about what she said about your mom? Was that part true?"
"Yes." Priss said flatly.
"Well, like… she's in serious fucking shit now. I mean, you don't have to live with her or put up with her or anything, but her life's in danger. If the feds — fuck, if anyone not buying her bullshit finds her, they'll fucking kill her and send her head to Tallahassee. Or, hell, straight to Washington. She's a terrorist, isn't she now?"
Priss wanted to smack her. She knew Sharpe was physically stronger, and could handle it. Emotionally, she was frail as a kitten. Another outburst from Priss directed at her and she'd collapse.
"Have any agents come to see you?" Sharpe squirmed uncomfortably as she spoke, "About her? Feds or… or otherwise?"
Priss blinked and furrowed her brow, "No. I'd completely forgotten. I haven't heard shit from anyone."
"Really? What'd they ask?"
Sharpe squirmed uncomfortably, and bit her lower lip, "I'm not allowed to discuss it. It's…"
"Was it anything about me?" Priss regretted the dumb question as soon as she asked it.
"I can't say." Sharpe winced, something in her tone seeming to imply that they did indeed discuss Priscilla Locke with her.
Priss grit her teeth, turned and went back inside. It was early in the day, yet the halls were empty. The usual din of noisy children emanating from each classroom was replaced by muted, stentorian voices, identical from each room, likely from television sets.
The same firm, steady voice emanated more clearly from a single open door. Priss briefly peered inside, seeing people huddled around the television set. It was the news. Some manner of horror in China.
Not my problem. She kept walking, down to the cramped basement she was increasingly spending her life inside. More voices awaited her inside.
"It's getting worse with her, and honestly if I don't get my transfer accepted, I'm just going to stop showing up. I've got enough friends around here."
Priss slithered in, seeing Edgars look her way with a cold fixed glare. She smiled nastily, "Want me to turn around so you can keep talking shit behind my back?"
Edgars shook his head, "No, Locke, now that you're here, I can talk shit to your face."
"What the fuck is your problem?" Priss shouted.
"This right here. Your insane outbursts, constantly yelling at people or picking fights with people, like Marlowe. And whatever the fuck you did to your sister, now her band of morons is stirring up shit with us because you couldn't keep your mouth shut about the Anabasis around her. You're nothing but a liability," Edgars turned from her, heading over to fetch his gloves, "I'm done."
Priss blinked, feeling her chest crushing down on her. She could hardly breathe, and couldn't think of anything to say in response. A hot burst of rage surged through her, and she took a step towards him, fingers curling in anticipation, wanting to strangle him.
Sandy was there — Priss hadn't even noticed her. She was blushing, caught in the fray, with the tall, willowy redhead blocking the only way out. Priss felt her face redden in shame. Flustered, she cried out, "Who you callin' a liability, liability?"
Edgars glanced at her as if she'd just violently soiled herself, "What does that even mean? Is that some kind of childish comeback like 'I know you are but what am I'?"
"I… yeah." Priss grit her teeth.
"Right. I'm out." Edgars moved towards her, and she clumsily moved aside, letting him leave. "This isn't a damn daycare," he yelled out from the stairwell, voice reverberating as it faded, "I'm not going to babysit an overgrown manchild freak." That just left Priss and Sandy to stare at each other.
"What did he mean about my sister?" Priss murmured.
Sandy bit her lower lip, and stepped over towards Locke. In her hands was a crumpled sheet of bright pink paper, the source of her conversation with Edgars before Priss came in. Priss tugged the end of the paper, prying it open just enough to read. It was the same rambling message Sharpe had shown her outside, allegedly from Rhiannon Locke. At the bottom was a message in large black letters, looking off-center, as if added later:
INDULGE YOUR SINS BEFORE THE PURGE
ANABASIS WILL SAVE US ALL
The bacterium was flying. Soaring through the air. It had multiplied rapidly, and flattened itself out, stretching to become bigger and wider.
It could see now it was red. Everything was red. All of them.
Heat and light sent them up. Now they were coming down. The air pushed back, but gravity would eventually win. It always did.
Grass was somewhere below. It knew this. All of them did. Grass and dirt and rock and metal and life.
Somehow it knew. It knew all about life. How to find it, how to touch it, how to get inside of it and lovingly merge with it. Life was warm, and the bacterium would make it warmer. Life would itch and twitch and thrash, as it burned to death from the inside. The bacterium would burn too. It knew this. All of them knew.
The bacteria started to move as one, in the direction of life.
The way the reddish haze hung over Hong Gai was a vision of hell. Po-Yuan Wang could think of no better description as he stepped off the truck with the rest of the emergency responders. They had stopped on an intersection, with the northern road forking up ahead, leading in to a high-end neighborhood which was now on fire. The occupying Qing army had arrived first, and were handling the rush of people fleeing the inferno.
Wang stiffened and gasped as he saw figures emerge from the smoke in front of the soldiers. They were skinny, wretched things, moving jerkily like zombies. Some of them were smoking, having walked through fire, their clothes and skin burning away, pustules swelling on their flesh, some bursting and weeping sickly yellow. Like zombies, they threw themselves at the soldiers. Unlike zombies, they didn't claw or bite; they clutched at arms and legs and begged for help.
Heaven help me. He grimaced, but continued to watch.
One of them, face intact and drenched in sweat, was close enough for him to smell. Like burning meat on a barbecue. Wang wretched, and jerked his head away, ashamed at his reaction. The sight and smell horrified him, and for a moment he saw not a man in blistering, mind-numbing pain, but a monster. He forced himself to look, even as his throat pressed and he continued to wretch and gag.
The emergency workers were dressed in full hazmat suits with oxygen tanks. The soldiers wore gas masks, and tucked their sleeves into their socks and gloves. Who could say if that helped.
A stocky woman waddled up to him. Despite his heaving, he extended a hand and stepped out towards her. As soon as he touched her hand, she dropped to the ground, shivering and twitching madly. He pulled her up to her feet, and discovered she was dead. Her face was caked in soot and sweat, but despite her incessant twitching, she was lifeless.
"Wang! Help me, please!" A voice called out behind him. It was Han Songlei. He and another worker were trying to cram two thrashing bodies onto a single stretcher. Another naked figure was clutching the second worker, gasping dryly for water as he glistened with moisture.
"Wang, take him!" Songlei took the man's hand and pulled him over to Wang. He stank of shit and smoke. Wang couldn't help himself; he vomited in his mouth, and forcibly swallowed it back down.
"Water." The dying man croaked at him.
Wang heaved the man up to his feet, and started to walk him towards the truck, "Come with me, I will help. What's your name?"
"Water." The man gagged. Then he shut his eyes and went limp.
"You, in the suit!" A soldier was gesticulating at Wang. He gaped helplessly at him, holding the dead man like a sack of wheat in his arms. The soldier kept shouting at him, and Wang let the dead man drop and rushed over to him.
"We need another man, come with me." The soldier patted Wang on the shoulder, and pointed to a soldier, two naked bodies draped across his shoulders. Another blackened figure was clutching the man's arm, threatening to bring everyone down on top of him.
He grabbed the man and pulled him away from the soldier. The man began to shriek, flailing his arms and legs in front of him and screaming, "It burns! I'm burning!"
Wang looked over the man. He was drenched in sweat, soot, and grime, but he appeared unhurt. Veins bulged in the man's arms and legs, and he trembled violently as Wang held him steady.
"Help me, please!" The man grabbed Wang's suit, digging his fingers into the slits of his gasmask, wrenching in an attempt to rip off the mask. Wang yelped and began to push at the man. The man suddenly tensed and let go, falling to the ground. Wang looked up and saw the soldier who had gestured to him holding a pistol in hand.
"You killed him!"
The soldier's eyes weren't visible through the mask, but his voice was high and tight, "He was trying to kill you." He muttered something after that.
"What?" Wang yelled.
"I'm following orders!"
"What orders?" Wang felt himself becoming hysterical. Were they going to exterminate everyone they came across? Why call in the emergency workers and try to rescue the victims? Would he be killed as well?
"We kill anyone trying to infect others." He waved his pistol over to a pile of bodies. Some were burned beyond recognition, some missing limbs, even heads. All of them were moving, writhing and twitching like dying insects.
Wang looked down at the man the soldier had shot. He was moving as well, even as his life's blood spewed from his mouth and through the hole in his back.
Wang didn't know what to say, and he continued to stare at him.
The soldier went back to his work.
As Wang returned to his group, more trucks were rolling up. Teams came with stretchers, foldable chairs and tables to set up an emergency triage area close to the trucks. Wang swallowed down another wet heave and hurried back to work.
The Foundation's assets in Southeast Asia were uncharacteristically slow to respond following the "Red Cloud" engulfing northern Dai Viet and seeping into Guangdong province, China. The precious few interactions between the Foundation and the Jinyiwei had been downright hostile. The Jinyiwei contacting the Foundation directly without a prisoner to exchange just didn't happen.
50 minutes after Site-141 sent a request to Southeast Asia for samples of the "Red Cloud" and information on the ground situation, the Qing Empire's Jinyiwei secret police responded in full. "Fix this mess undoubtedly started by your government."
The analyses were dry and technical. Very little Dr. Marlowe could comprehend. The cool, detached tone of such write-ups always felt excessive to her. This one in particular belied the sense of stress and tension that tinged every word Drs. Alton and Kohn jabbered at one another across from her desk, voices amplified by the small office's acoustics.
"We've seen this before." Kohn gave a token glance to the sheaf of papers before him, but he'd already gone through it enough to know the answer, "The exact same bacterial strain taken from soil samples IT-334 and 335. Between IT-348 and 400, the genetic similarities fade, but they're definitely related."
Nothing either man said was radically different from what was already in the report. Marlowe idly tapped the sheaf of papers before her. "Short answer is…"
"Short answer is this could've been engineered by someone here simultaneous with their alternate-universe counterparts from 334, 335 and so on."
"Not bloody likely." Alton put in, "The bacteria's cellular reproductive cycle is too fast. It won't last more than ten or fifteen years, and the atmospheric conditions on Earth aren't suitable for this kind of bacterium to grow this large — too much oxygen, it'd kill it."
"Meaning it came from one of these other 'iterations' found via Anabasis."
"Right." Alton put in, leaning forward anxiously. He'd figured it out; he just wanted her to say it aloud and validate him.
"Meaning there's other Anabasis devices out there."
"As of now, that's our working assumption. May or may not be the same kind of device, but the function is the same."
Marlowe put a hand to her head, and folded back the report, glancing at the colored paper at the very bottom. ANABASIS WILL SAVE US ALL.
"Fucking Locke." Marlowe hissed to herself, "It always comes back to Priscilla Fucking Locke."
Edgars fumed as he stormed down the hall, making his way towards the exit. Part of him wanted to stop, turn around, and go back to the little room to butt heads with that bitch Locke again. Instead he nearly bumped headfirst into Dr. Marlowe, emerging from her office.
"What are you doing, Mr. Edgars?" She asked cooly.
He clenched his jaw, and tried not to meet her calm gaze, "Nothing. Just venting."
"It's Locke." She said, not inquiringly.
"Isn't it always?" He sneered, "I mean, that fucking … I can't even say bitch because that /thing/ isn't a—"
He looked down at her and blinked, feeling an odd chill go through him. Had Dr. Marlowe always been here every day? Why would a doctor need to remain on-site with a Safe-class anomaly undergoing testing?
"Breathe…" She said.
He furrowed his brow as she reached out to grasp his shoulders. He thought he saw the door open behind her, people filing out, but they were alone out in the hall.
He drew in a sharp breath, and started to panic. His lungs were nearly empty. He tried to breathe again, and again felt out of breath.
He stopped, and suddenly air rushed into him, lovingly filling his depleted lungs, the air cool and crisp. His tongue felt warm, as if he'd bitten through and drawn blood. But he tasted nothing. He felt nothing.
"Breathe…" She whispered again, "…us in… deeply…"
He blinked and stared at her for a long moment, confusion. Marlowe's expression shifted to match his.
"What are you doing, Mr. Edgars?"
He blinked again, air gently escaping his lips, "Nothing. Just venting."
"It's Locke." She said, not inquiringly.
"Isn't it always?" He sneered.
Marlowe smiled and brushed past him without another word, going down the hall and taking a right at the corner. Edgars nodded absently, and continued down the hall. At the corner, he took a right and grunted, before turning back around to the left, "Bunch of freaks in this damn place."