Priscilla Locke was a tall, willowy woman, perhaps in her early thirties. Her gruff, detached expression remained shielded after a pair of sharp shades. Her movements as she left the black van were filled with a trained, balanced indifference close to arrogance. The simple yet functional field clothes and a large backpack more akin to those of a fighter than a healer's or a scholar's. She could handle herself in a fight, Frank thought.
He also noted, prominent in the sepia-colored field vest she wore over a grey T-shirt, the white UN symbol that marked her as their auditor delegate.
Under the UN symbol, less prominent but clearly visible, dangled an ID card that sported the initials for the World Parahealth Organisation. Those were accompanied by the iconic globe of the UN which was, in turn, crowned with the two coiled serpents and half of a laurel wreath. The discreet yet unmistakable symbol of the WPhO.
A couple of men in the brown-on-brown fatigues of a GOC team accompanied her. Both of them scanned the area with hawk-like looks. Frank spotted at least a third one, dressed as a Red Crescent volunteer, whose body rested in a relaxed but alert stance near the van they had used to come into the camp. In their favor, they didn't sport any obvious weapons inside the camp limits, as politely requested by the MCF International Board.
However, them being Coalition operatives, that only meant they had concealed them under their clothes.
Frank grimaced. He did not believe for a moment that woman was just an auditor.
Sarah hurried towards the auditor, her fellow ecSec closely following her. While all other Executives were rushing to get the few assets the Work Group had in the area ready for transport and the mobile storage units ready to roll, Sarah — their boss — was the only one already done by the time they had arrived. Frank suspected she was feeling rather lonely at the time.
She nervously shook the delegate's hand. "I hope you had a pleasant trip."
"You must be Sarah," she said. Her voice was a dry, grave monotone.
"Right!," she merrily intoned. "But you may call me Opal, or Sarah, or Doctor Desjeux, or Desjeux, or Opaline, or whatever you want to call me, it's fi-ine!"
Frank closed his eyes for a second and looked away. Sarah tended to be so far removed from most social conventions that he wondered frequently how could she be so well-liked. Actually, he wondered how could she not come across as an obnoxious dimwit to pretty much every single person who met her for the first time. That singing voice certainly was a matter of concern for him.
He decided to venture a look, expecting the delegate to be annoyed; or worse, angry at such a breach in due protocol.
He could not find a change in the delegate's expression. Her face still looked like she had been carved out of stone.
Well, I had never expected to meet the polar opposite to Desjeux-
"Oh, that's right, Frank! Frank, Priscilla." Frank noticed she was actually moving her hands, "Priscilla, Frank. Frank Westinghouse is our ecSec, the Charitable's equivalent of a security officer!"
"Stop that." The woman abruptly stepped back. "I know who he is. And you can just call me Locke."
Sarah stared at the delegate, apparently startled by such a clear rebuttal. Her face still looked like it a stone effigy. And Sarah, who was starting to come to her senses again, would certainly try a clever and disagreeable retort.
If Frank read the situation correctly, they couldn't have that. "Em, anyways," he quickly intervened, putting his hand forward, "call me Frank."
"You're my bodyguard?"
"Bodyguard might be a bit of a strong word. Escort?"
"Sorry, not in my budget, and you're not my type anyways."
Both looked at Opal. She was short of breath and attempting, fruitlessly, to burst into laughter. Instead, she began to stutter.
"G-good one!" Concerned, Frank palmed Sarah's back before she choked on her amused self. "Really, really good-!"
The delegate did not waste another second on her.
"I have to speak to you as soon as possible. There are possible security concerns we need to address."
Ah, even more security concerns, then?
"Opal, just… just get back to the tents, okay?"
"Oooh, dear, s-s-so chivalrous of you," Frank felt a gigolo joke coming. He raised his hand to get the attention of a young Somali volunteer they had recruited four days ago as a translator and a trainee, Yusuf. As he came closer, Opal tried to keep talking. "I-I hope your kindness-s-s-"
"Please, Yusuf, get her to the pickups until she catches her breath."
"Right away, Frank," he said, "we're hitting the road soon!"
"Don't worry, I'll be there, just get her to one of the pickups. See you in Laascaanood, Sarah!"
He could not understand a word over the first bouts of laughter.
"The fuck was that?" the delegate asked. Frank turned to her, mildly annoyed by the way she worded it.
"You'll warm up to her, believe me."
Priscilla Locke crossed her arms. She looked bored.
"We gonna talk or what?", she said, turning to him with a frown brow.
All business. "Sure, but I would like to ask those Coalition associates of yours to step down. If at all possible, to leave. This is a gun-free area, after all."
She looked at them, and then back to Frank. "You noticed."
"Noooo," he smiled mischievously, "notice what, ma'am?"
Now it was her turn to grimace. "Fine. I won't be needing your services anymore, people, this man is taking over from here on," she shouted at the soldiers.
The three men — and a fourth one, Frank noticed, who had been posing as a refugee for the entire exchange — retreated into the van, started it and left. The woman looked at him again.
"Are we talking now?"
"Somewhere private, I recall?", he said, with his most oily smile. "Let's get to the jeeps, it'll be fine there."
"No. No, not to your jeep," she muttered, in what Frank could barely call a whisper. "Could be bugged."
"Oh, sure," he answered, also in a low voice, "if whoever would want to listen to us talking was willing to bug all of our jeeps at the same time, I'd reckon they'd deserve it."
Nevertheless, he took her to the Worldtree trailer, the one Jacob used as a lab. There was no talking on the way, which allowed him to compulsively check for traps, hitmen or more infiltrators.
"Shit's a mess," he heard the delegate speak, but suspected that was more spoken to herself than to him.
"Well, it is an IDP camp, ma'am," he tried.
"Call me Locke," she immediately retorted.
"Alright. Miss, or-?"
Such a cheerful lady. Frank didn't try to say anything else until they got to the Worldtree trailer, which was happily empty. Two trained volunteers of Olympe's lot guarded it, standing against its doors; while normally they would leave it alone, their presence was understandable. There was valuable equipment in there.
Frank smiled at the guys and entered the large metallic container, only to notice Locke was not following him. He looked back and saw her hesitate. "What?"
"Could be bugged too."
"Yeah, that's why I brought you here. It won't be a problem. Come in, please."
Locke came in, and Frank showed his face through the door to talk to both of the men outside.
"Give us a minute. Sensitive stuff. If Jacob comes around, it is very sensitive. Got it?"
The guards nodded.
"Great," he said.
Frank closed the door and turned to Locke, who was dropping her backpack.
"So, miss Locke. This place is secure, sort of. Opal did something to the walls that prevents scrying and all that bullshit, and Jacob will never shut up about how stupidly well-protected it is against any form of technological means of espionage, so let's start with the-"
"What is this thing?"
The abrupt way she spoke threw Frank off balance for a second. Locke, arms crossed, was looking at the tank.
The tank with the thing that wasn't a hippo.
"It is an anomaly, ain't it?" Frank could practically hear her teeth gnashing. She pointed at the transparent walls of the tank. "Is this stuff strong enough to contain it?"
Something in Frank's mind clicked.
He stared at Locke, who was taking her backpack off without looking away from the tank, and carefully waging his options as he berated himself for his own blindness. How didn't I see it before?
"It is the tank it has been contained in since we got it. It hasn't even tried to leave, so yes. Yes, it should be enough to contain it." The ecSec smiled. He had located a long screwdriver in one of Jacob's transparent drawers. He calmly walked towards it, smiling at his good luck. "Although it is sort of a passive animal. Jacob, the guy who researches it, went on and on to say that it is sort of sessile. You know, like-"
"Is it safe?"
"Well," started Frank, "I wouldn't call it safe…"
He went for the screwdriver and, taking her by surprise, flawlessly pinned Locke against the tank's glass, waking up the ugly beast inside — "whaaaaaaaaaat" — in the process. He separated her legs, locked her right arm and pressed the other one against the tank as best as he could. He placed the screwdriver by her neck, letting her feel the cold shank. Locke tried to fight back for a moment, but it didn't matter. Frank was in control.
"How did you find me!?"
"The fuck are you talking about?"
Locke's voice managed to sound cold and far more in control than Frank's. He kept pushing.
"I don't fucking know how you've done it, but you tell them to leave me alone, or I'll end you!"
Her voice was absolutely glacial when she answered. "Okay. Just so we are clear about it, neither of us works for the Foundation anymore, Westinghouse. And you should know Foundation agents just don't fall for intimidation, you know, for the kind of intimidation you're trying. So, how about you let me go, you take a pill of calm the fuck down and let me talk?"
At that moment, an elbow went all the way through his lock, to his stomach. A moment later, he was on the floor, fighting to get on his feet. She had the screwdriver.
Which she put in Jacob's work desk.
"Are we calm?," Locke asked him. Without waiting for an answer, she said: "First, I'm here 'cause the Manna Charitable Foundation has taken me in. I bought my way in."
"I worked for the Foundation. That's over now. Actually, that never even happened in the first place anymore. Thanks to that."
She pointed at her backpack, which was laying on the floor right by the work desk. Frank followed her finger. "That-in your backpack?"
"I'm not taking it out," she said, laconic. Frank attempted to adjust at the situation.
"Okay. Okay… either you are pulling sort of a false flag here-"
"You rammed me into the fish bowl first."
He shouted at the unblinking, uncaring women. "You have the training! The looks-the way you carry yourself! When you saw the thing in the tank, the moment you saw it, even if it was asleep, you asked if the glass could hold it! You even talk like a field agent, dammit!"
Locke's frown burrowed.
"You thought I was an agent because I said 'containment' and 'safe.' And you were a field agent?"
"The attitude. The-the stance-" Frank blinked and shook his head, feeling uncertain.
"Should I have hopped on one foot? It doesn't even matter anymore; I'm not now," she shook her head, "Have said it twice already. Moving on."
Locke extracted a small object from a side pocket of her backpack. Frank was already on his feet, and he was watching her every move, but wasn't prepared for what she presented to him.
"It's… a toy bird."
"An anomalous fucking toy bird, sub-safe. Your people gave it to me," she stated, a tinge of scorn in her voice, while moving the small wooden bird towards him. "It's supposed to be a message for you."
At that point, he had to choose. Either call for help or make a stupid decision. He could still try to overpower her, get to the door or warn Olympe's guys somehow.
For a second, he remembered how the Rabbi had told him he had to learn to trust in others.
Frank was almost certain that he did not mean it as a universal advice, but at this point the ecSec could use the details.
"If this thing kills me, Opal will know. She has all her people marked."
Locke threw the bird at him. He got it half-way to his face. That was when its minuscule wooden beak started to move.
"Well, at last! Hello, Frank!"
A very confused Frank looked at the bird. While it sounded like someone was speaking from the other side of a long tube, he could make out Loan Lindsberg's voice.
"Hello?", it insisted.
"Deputy Director!?" Frank observed its little wooden wings moved with every syllable he uttered. Then the beak moved again with a clattering.
"Yes, yes, hello, please wake up and listen, thank you, this is urgent," the bird said, its beak practically vibrating instead of opening, trying to catch up with Lindsberg's hurried rhythm. "See, Locke is a refugee, of sorts. She came to us because she literally had no other place to go to."
Frank looked at her. "She is a deserter then, Deputy Director?"
"Not really, no. Well, that too," bird-Lindsberg said. "Let's see, how do I put it… oh, fuck it. Please, be discreet about this bit, Frank. Don't tell anyone, particularly not Opal, you know how she gets with this sort of stuff, strong beliefs and all that. She is a trans-reality refugee."
Frank looked at the bird, then back at her, eyes narrowed. "That… would explain some things."
"I thought she-"
"He thought I was after him," Locke interrupted. "Managed to talk him out of it."
"Oh. I hope you weren't very rough on each other?"
Both parties crossed sights for an instant. Frank gave up momentarily. "No, not really. She reminded me of field agents I've met, that's all."
"Oh. Okay, see, we need to keep this covert, Frank. We all know you are trying to do your best to renounce to everything all those years with the Foundation instilled in you, to heal yourself and find balance within your job, but the thing is… damn, I don't know how to sugarcoat this, we need you to keep an eye on her."
"What? Wait, those GOC-doesn't the-," he blurted.
"They weren't GOC, Frank. They were our own people, posing as GOC," Frank's brain, muddled after landing on the floor, tried to connect the dots laid in front of him. The Deputy Director interrupted him. "Let me finish, please, I know this is confusing. As far as the Coalition and the UN in general are concerned, she is a new Work Group security specialist, and you are the one who is going to take her under your wing while she acclimates to her new working conditions. You did request for another ecSec a few months ago, right? Well, there you have her."
Confused, Frank slumped for a moment but rapidly asked: "But why do all this?"
"Why? Damn, Frank, you're the skipper. Think. If the GOC learns about her, they'll hunt her down. She is a trans-reality hopper. You know how they get with trans-reality hoppers!"
"This is only a facade, yes, it's not how we normally do things and it's normal to feel uncomfortable with it, but there is a reason, believe me. Now, if anyone there, Opal included, asks about her, she is a Parahealther. She studied in Oxford, joined them after a lycan attack in Westborough, Massachusetts. She has her papers, doesn't have to work with any of our people and is exempt from everything but basic Safety Concerns. Any problems you have, report to Continental Branch or to me. International has nothing to do with her." A light tweet sounded as Lindsberg stopped to breath. "Got it?"
Frank played the card every Foundation Agent played when pushed: paranoia.
"How do I know it is you!?"
"The only thing I can think of as a safe phrase now is 'what is a class-D', Frank."
That was the first thing he had ever asked him, when he had chosen to defect to the Charitable. Nobody outside of that room, which was not bugged and had no windows, had heard that discussion.
Frank felt dizzy. "That… that is hardly enough."
"I know. Don't care. Don't have much more time, these Wondertainment walkie-talkies exhaust their charge pretty much in seconds, they were a donation for a reason… Frank, she has brought with her an extremely valuable abnormality."
"'It could change the world?'"
"Don't mock me, Frank. Please. Yes, it could make a difference, maybe even the difference. Please, tell me you are with us on this."
"If it really is you, I am, but I'm not certain your 'us' is my 'us' anymore."
"Spoken like a Work Group volunteer." The bird remained silent for a moment. "I beg you, Frank. We wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't too good an opportunity."
He pondered his alternatives while examining Locke. Without taking his eyes away from hers, he talked to the bird. "If it is not you, I swear to God I'll sort it out and tell them on this. I'll warn the entire Work Group. I'm a moron, but not that much of a moron. Got it?"
The answer rushed through the clattering red beak. "That's all I wanted to hear, Frank. Priscilla, will you keep your end of the bargain?"
The woman crossed her arms. "Sure. Why not."
"Then give him the plans for the Vesta-90 and tell him anything not related to the experiments. Report back every ten days, please, we'll be charging the wonderbirds and contacting you from here. Carry it close, Priscilla. Good luck to both."
The toy bird went dead in Frank's hand.
He looked at the thing for a moment. Then he raised his sight, only to find Priscilla's gaze already locked on his face. She seemed calm.
"You gonna rage now? Attack me and try to hurt me?"
Frank looked at her, rage sending ripples through his face. "Sure. Sure I will, Locke. First, I will search you. No guns, no comms, no computers. If you try something with an abnormal asset, yours included, I'll have you killed, no matter what the charter of the Charitable says. If you hurt any member of the Group, I'll have your head on a pike. And, if I learn you are somehow working for the other Foundation-"
"Go on and fuckin' try it." She offered Frank an equally hateful look. "One thing you mud-lovers have over us is an excess of talk. I'm here 'cause my sister works for the MCF. I don't know if I like it yet, but I prefer it to being dead. So kill me or get over it, I'm not going anywhere. And now, search me already."
While he went through her backpack — although she would not allow him to touch a bundle of cloth she called Anna something — and her person, they remained almost entirely quiet. For a minute or so, he remained angry, but soon Frank felt genuinely mortified. Locke was still glaring at him once he was finished.
However, she was the one to break the silence:
"How would you have explained my corpse to your team, anyhow?"
He shrugged. "Would've told them the truth, I guess. I thought you were a Foundation agent, thought you were gonna tell them on the Group. I'm sure they would have shipped me out of here."
As she rose, once again carrying her backpack, Priscilla's face became a eulogy to all empathy.
"Where's my Foundation credentials? You think there'll be anyone named Priscilla Locke working for them here?"
"What, you actually used credentials in your universe? Like, Foundation badges?" Frank offered her a grim snicker. He pointed at the tank and its inhabitant. "Oh, fine, that thing seems to clean dirty water of any thing that is not alive and nobody would let me look for a D-class candidate, so I thought I might as well put your corpse in there and do the test, happy?"
Locke looked at him for a moment, and briefly sneered at him. "Sure."
"Really. And what if you had to kill me? How would you explain my corpse to the rest of my team?"
"I wouldn't. There are still some guards tailing me. I'd just get away."
"Oh, now I'm calling bullshit…"
The rest of their conversation was lost on the abnormal creature, which felt some relief when the hominids were gone and had closed the door of the lab that had become its temporary residence. Neither of them noticed, but since the moment it woke up, it hadn't stopped listening to the being… no, at the 'thing' in the backpack.
Neither of them could have noticed, but beyond the temporary relief it felt, it was beginning to feel terrified of the thing in the backpack.
It still felt terrified when the entire Opal-1 Mission Work Group got in motion, and would feel terrified for a time longer than it initially imagined. Had it known they would have heeded its warnings, unlike all those other times, it would have tried to warn them.
Unfortunately, it didn't.