Best as it Gets

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The way it came out was miraculous. Last month it was an empty lot, with MCF operatives handing out food and clean water and offering medical services. The operatives were still there, working out of a fully-functioning concrete building. Lights, air conditioning, everything working perfectly. A fully built hospital in the middle of a Somali refugee camp should have been a beacon for masses of humanity, writhing and shuffling and pushing one another as they sought desperately needed aid. A beacon for hope and humanity.

So why was it fucking empty?

Dodger held her nose up, trying to relax herself before her throat closed up and she suffocated. That wasn't fair to say it was empty… there were plenty of people here, getting checkups and waiting in lines, and several hospital beds were occupied. There were just more people across the street, gathering around the man shouting from the back of a run-down technical with its tires freshly stripped off.

"What's going on out there?" One of the doctors asked another.

"Rabblerousers have got people convinced the place is infected with something. Saying it's demonic, or something."

"Demonic? I thought they were Muslim."

"Islam has demons in it, too."


Dodger went out the door, met outside by a local guard as she stormed across the dirt road towards the crowd. She knew right away it was a crock of shit—the man on the back of the truck was trying and failing to be subtle as he motioned to others to start corralling people to his left. He was trying to get them to block her way towards him.

"Hey," She called out to him, turning sideways so as not to elbow a woman in the face, "Hey! Hey!"

She avoided someone coming her way, then noticed a man push someone else in her path. The crowd started to notice her, and turned her way.

"What do you want?" A man nearby yelled in her ear, grabbing her by the shoulder, "Who do you think you are, some kind of army soldier? Fucking marine?"

Dodger was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, casual, along with a bandoleer and a belt. She thought she looked more like a police officer when she'd dressed. Hadn't realized Somalians here were unlikely to have experienced civilian police before.

"Don't touch me. Who are you? You're not in charge around here, so fuck off."

The man took that rather well, she thought, as he stepped aside and the crowd started giving her room. She thought so, but then the man on the truck was looking right down at her, addressing her directly in English.

"You, American, what do you say? How is it you have a hospital building built and supplied so fast? Where was construction? Who was working here? What poison are you putting in the medicine?"

Dodger kept her hands to her sides, clearly visible. Despite her look she didn't have a gun. MCF Mission members weren't allowed guns either. Some of the people in the crowd had guns. The speaker's words reverberated around in Somali, and another language or two she didn't recognize. Some voices came out in hostile response. She hadn't noticed it before, but the crowd wasn't entirely against her. An enclave of about a dozen men were shouting down the man. Some were bracing for a fight with the rest of the crowd.

"It's called 'prefabricated shelter'—we build it elsewhere, pack it up in pieces, then bring it here and put it back together. What do you say? Why are you stirring shit up here?"

The man began hounding the crowd again, while the man who had tried to touch her now came up in front of her again, "I suggest you go back inside, slut."

She wasn't even paying attention to him. She had had visions in her head — heroic and overblown, perhaps — of her standing up onto the back of the truck, shouting down this rabble-rouser, espousing the new hospital as safe, and exposing him as… what?

"You really want to see?" The man suddenly shouted towards her, then back to the crowd, "She really wants to see!" The crowd began to shout louder, angrier. She couldn't even begin to imagine what these people had gotten into their minds that they were turning down food and drink and medical supplies just to stand around and be angry about something else yet again. Suddenly she realized something odd about the man… his teeth…

"Hey," She called out again to him.

He turned to her, leaning in close like a performer on a stage, "You will see, American. Just wait."

"Where are you from? What is your clan?" She asked in response. His teeth… they weren't all perfect and white, but the more he spoke, the more she saw what was missing — no implants, no fillings, no off-colors. If anything, his molars were whiter than the rest of his teeth.

Someone was getting her words across to the crowd, and some people were starting to take notice of her.

"What's your clan, fucker? Where are you from?"

Someone else had brought it up in Somali, and some people in the crowd were starting to cry out in turn, demanding to know the man's allegiance. Should be just like Mexico… Dodger thought. This area was largely one clan, so that severely limited the pick of lies this actor on the truck had to deliver. It would shut him up for a while, at the least.

A young man in the crowd was gesticulating at the man. The side opposing the speaker had grown enough in the few minutes that the speaker couldn't be heard anymore over the tumult.

Dodger made her way over towards him, when shots began to ring out. People started to scream, and she brought her arms up and dropped into a crouch. She quickly rose, heading for the derelict pickup truck. She started sucking in deep breaths, feeling her throat start to clench on her again. She couldn't concentrate any longer on finding the man— by the time she reached the truck, he was gone. She could barely see straight. Every breath she took was somehow just not enough to sate her.

"Listen to me," A voice called out near her. Her eyes darted about, and she sat upright, as hands came down on her, holding her still.

"Listen!" It was the young man, "Were you shot?"

She blinked, and looked down at herself. Mud caked her pants, and someone had tried to steal something from her bandoleer. Otherwise, she didn't see anything to indicate she was hurt.

"It's fine— I'm fine!" She swatted away more hands that were coming towards her belt.

"You should not have come out, you only made things worse."

She furrowed her brow at him, "I just asked that guy a question!"

"You nearly got yourself hurt. Men were looking at you, some as if you were a fine cut of meat."

"Oh yeah?" She'd never had any trouble with the locals before, none of them haranguing her or leering at her. Why now?

"You are with the Charitable Foundation, yes? My name is Yasir. Come with me, you must see."

Dodger got up, her breathing still strained, but at least she wasn't at risk of being trampled or shot. She kept struggling to keep her breathing steady as Yasir and his companions began leading her away.

"I know what the Manna Charitable Foundation has been doing here, this is not my worry. No problem, you understand? People look for any excuse to demonize a foreign operation here, especially with whites like you. Most people don't care. You come, you give food, medicine, they will take it. Something has happened now, people are losing trust in you."

"I noticed," She kept her hand over her face, hiding her nose as she pressed it up, expanding her nostrils to ease her breathing.

Before she could ask what, they stopped. They had brought her beside a large shack, with a strip of chicken wire hastily duct-taped over a corner where the shack met the wall of the shack beside it. One of the men approached, waiting for Yasir's nod, before peeling off the tape and lifting the wire up.

Dodger had been watching him, waiting for an explanation. The explanation shot out from under the chicken wire. It was a cat… or what should have been a cat. It was on a leash and collar, and gaping at her with big, almost sad eyes. Its ears were gone, and it had chunks of fur missing from its body. It was also missing a back leg.

"So… what? It's a feral cat." She noticed just as she finished speaking, and just as the man tugged on the cat's leash, turning it over to show its left side. Its ribs were exposed, and what she had thought to be dirt or mud was actually blood caked in its fur as the cat's organs threatened to slide out from the gaping hole in its side. The cat seemed not to notice. It was purring affectionately, trying to come closer to her.

"So… what? It's a mutilated cat… what's this—"

"This is not the only one. Days ago animals begin to appear in the village. Big ones, you understand? Not only dogs and cats, but jackals, wildcats, even monkeys. We hear one village twelve kilometers away, a lion appears, but the lion does not attack anyone. You know what the lion did? It did what all the animals that appear here did. You know what that is?"

Dodger looked at the cat again. She couldn't put together in her head what that thing could have done to end up with its guts hanging out and still living… and happy, "Am I supposed to know?"

Yasir sighed, pressing his lips together firmly, "If you don't know, then this is a problem."

"What did the lion do? What are all the animals doing?"

"Not all the animals, only some," Yasir clarified, and started shoving the mangled cat back under the chicken wire. It didn't resist, even trying to rub against his foot as he pushed it away, "The animals come into the village, they lay down and show us their bellies. Then they do not move. They will stay laying until someone comes by and cuts them. They will let us cut into their bellies. They are happy for us to cut their bellies open. They want us to cut them all over, to cut off pieces of them."

Yasir said something to the man nearest the cage, and he lifted it again, pulling the cat out by its collar. It didn't protest, but mewled lazily as he turned it over onto its back, showing Dodger its hind leg. The other was half gone, showing dried bone at the end.

"This leg, here," Yasir pointed to the stump, "We cut it off completely. Completely, you understand? Yesterday, we find this," Again indicating the leg.

"Meaning its leg is growing back?" Dodger offered. She didn't think they would be lying. The cat should've been dead anyway with the gaping hole in its body.

Yasir nodded, "It is growing back. Look here," He indicated a hairless patch of skin on the cat's stomach, "Come closer, look."

Dodger crouched down to get a better look, as the man beside Yasir crouched beside her, pulling a knife out and starting to cut into the cat. It didn't stop its affectionate purrs. Fresh blood poured out of the wound, staining its already grimy fur.

"See this, in here?" Yasir pointed as the man opened up the skin, ripping it open further to expose more bloody flesh. Dodger had a strong stomach for this sort of thing, but the way the cat just lay there purring made her want to cry. It was beyond disturbing.

"What am I looking for?" She asked wearily.

The man kept pressing his fingers in deeper, wiggling them as if stirring a pot of warm soup. Then he pulled out a hunk of flesh, cut into a cube.

"That piece, we leave behind two days ago. Yesterday, the cat is healed up again. So we cut it open again, and find that piece still there."

And now they found it a third time, Dodger realized. She got up, not able to stomach the cat's cheerful purring anymore, before turning to him, "What's this have to do with the MCF?"

"I don't know. Only thing I know is your hospital is finished last week. Next day, these animals appear. Starting here. Then they appear in villages two kilometer away, three, then ten. All starting here."

Three hours after waking, her body still stiff from that awkward seated position she'd taken, Priss still felt drowsy. Her vision blurred every time she blinked, and she had to move slowly, lest a sudden movement send stabs of pain through her head.

At least the sight was pleasant enough. An underground lake, not yet filled, looking like a brand new luxury swimming pool. From their vantage point right over the reservoir, they could take it all in— the Rabbi and Opal, giddy and chittering about the artificial cavern of concrete they had managed to pull off; Westinghouse, asking things like weight distribution, pillars, and insulation; and herself, resisting the urge to just sit down where she stood and staring vacantly at the pristine white ceiling until she was comfortable.

She looked down at the dufflebag in her hand. She'd almost forgotten about the Anabasis. Her arm had gone numb from its weight, and prickling sensation had abruptly returned.

The bowl-like reservoir was hollow and about thirteen meters at its deepest. Ladders connected to a high platform positioned directly over the center of the bowl. Niches in the bowl would open up as it filled with water, covered with metal gates. When the reservoir started overflowing, the niches would open, and clean and dirty water would flow out and in to the reservoir, respectively. The niches were open, with Torres' volunteers adjusting and checking the piping, making sure the Vestan sewage system that drained from the camp had fused correctly. By tomorrow or the next day, the Hippo would be brought in, and then she would make it rain.

"What I don't get — I mean, Rabbi, don't get me wrong," Opal's voice came in over the low murmuring of the group, "it's impressive and all that… but why do we need this whole place? The Vestan seems to be a perfectly good filter system, and the camp uses Vestan-grown sewage and drains. There's no risk of contagion from the Sour."

"Well, we planned this place when we got here, and we didn't know that at the time. Besides, I've been running tests and we might have a bigger issue… there's a chance that some of the piping is lead."

Priss grinned, and started to laugh to herself. It was inappropriate, but she couldn't help herself.

"What?" Frank ignored Priscilla, staring intently at Jacob.

"The Vestan piping. We thought it would be mostly plastic, but… it wasn't. There's lead pipes down there. And there's more."

Frank rubbed his eyes as Opal crossed her arms, looking about to explode, "We've been poisoning our beneficiaries, Jacob? Tell me we haven't."

"It's not a problem!" Jacob looked frustrated, as if he hadn't just said it was a problem, "We're replacing the outgoing pipes. Incoming shouldn't be a problem, since the Hippo should be able to handle any pollutants. Also, related issue…"

"More?" Frank put in.

"You know how like, sometimes when you make fruit punch, you don't fully liquefy the fruit, and some of it collects at the bottom? There might be — well, there is — some fungi that isn't growing properly, and gets left behind in the pipes. It won't be an issue as we start cleaning out the pipes."

Frank said nothing. Opal pressed her palms into her eyes and sighed loudly, "Last thing we need is people sucking down crap-filled water when we promised them clean and pure, then starting to… I don't know… sprout extra arms and legs or grow pipes in their bellies!"

"I just said it's not an issue —!"

"Your exact words were 'Also, related issue'!" Opal nearly shrieked.

"Well I was exaggerating! It's an issue now but it won't be an issue by tomorrow. Besides, it's not my fault. We might not have these same issues if we used it entirely as intended."

Frank glanced up, "Unexpected effect from our manipulating it?"

Jacob shrugged, "I don't know. Maybe."

Frank shrugged, mirroring Jacob's gesture in a condescending fashion, "And we didn't bother to test this out before-hand. No big deal. After all, it's just Somalians. Mongrels, as the Nazis would say."

Subhuman mongrel.

Jacob went rabid, "Don't you start pulling that Godwin shit on me! You know that's not even close to what we'd intended! If we had more time we'd be able to iron these things out but we don't. We just don't!"

Priss smirked — by now, she'd given up and was sitting atop the Anabasis, rocking gently back and forth and at a state of ease, "You know… back home, the Party for the Supremacy of Western Civilization would have tested all of this beforehand on some 'subhuman mongrels' as you put it. If the locals got uppity… well, that depended on the administrator. Best-case scenario, the locals would get a nice lecture about all the benefits coming their way, and the hope for the future. Most of the time, it was just curfews, crackdowns, and cracking heads if anyone protested too loudly. It was inhuman, but… when you've got thousands of people already living in such squalor, on the brink of death every day, it was a noble sacrifice."

The others stared at her like she was a monster. She regretted even speaking up. She looked away, still rocking, "My sister called herself a 'subhuman mongrel'. She considered herself one of them."

Opal blinked. Then her expression slowly turned into a frown, then a cold grimace. She turned to Frank.

"I'm not keen on world history, Frankie. Please, help me here. There has never been a Party for the Supremacy of Western Civilization, right?"


"Never mind. I just don't care. You deal with her," she said, coldness permeating her every word. "You deal with her, you are responsible for her, whatever messes this one makes, it's on you."

Opal turned for the ladder and started to climb it. Jacob and Frank stared back at Priss; the 'Rabbi' seemed disgusted, Frank was just tired. For a long while, their expressions didn't change.

She hadn't saved herself. That would've been funny someplace else. But not here. You don't belong here.

Just as Frank had sat down and started to settle in for the night, trouble came.

"Oy prick!" Dodger called before she peeked into the cube, auburn hair looking black, as if she'd been caught in a thunderstorm.

Frank eased back in his seat and crossed his arms, "Late night visits between Mission group members are typically frowned upon."

The woman shook her head, smirking despite her words, "Ew, Frank. Ew. I'd think your standards would be much higher than that."

"And so modest," He smirked in turn. Dodger was anything but. She didn't bother with makeup when out in the field, but she still stuck out horribly, looking either too young to be in her position, or too pretty to be someone expected to get themselves dirty with actual work.

She produced a wad of paper, and slipped into the cube. She was actually dirty for once—shirt stained and pants smeared in dust, "Report from today. I forwarded a copy to Torres first. His team's taking a look at it."

"More shit?"

She came closer, and dropped it into his lap, "You take this nice pile of shit, and you eat it. Then you go to bed with a nice smile, and wait for another in the morning."

"Wonderful," Frank held the report up, thumbing through it, knowing just what to look for and how to skim past the inane bullshit and prose Dodger tended to load in. As if her reports were going to be published as great literary works.

"Wait, what is this? How do we know these animals are being affected by the Vesta donation?"

"We don't. But think about it. The animals are regenerating body parts from seemingly nothing… Vestan fungus grows into stuff we design it to."

Frank groaned and put the report down, "God help us…"

Dodger pursed her lips and crossed her arms, "Smile. Savor the shit. Remember how sweet it tastes compared to the shit we're likely to have to eat tomorrow."

"Why didn't we know of this?"

She shrugged, irritatingly calm about this situation, "None of my contacts knew, but then I don't have any ears among the town elders the way you all do. Why didn't the elders warn you?"

Frank shook his head. Political intrigues, he guessed. "I'll have to warn Lindsberg and the rest."

"Yeah," She was still calm, even smirking at him.

"What's so goddamn funny?"

"Smile, Frank. It can only get worse from here. Enjoy it while you can" She turned to leave, and leaned against the door again, "Savor the taste."

"Ugh, just go."

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