Burden of Humanity

Dodger snorted obnoxiously at the picture of the hairy man-beast, "It's cute."

They'd been calling it a spider-bear. Apparently its hands and head were more arachnid-like than mammalian, even though it breathed air and ate cooked meat. They were even communicating with it well enough. For all the good that'll do. It's gonna die sooner or later if it doesn't let us examine it properly.

"That's not the real issue right now," Kone put in firmly. His visage was tacked to the center of her screen, the main focus of the video conference going on now. Several seconds of delay as the signal was encrypted. GOC technology, so nothing too sensitive could be said over the line. Though obviously there was nothing they could do about keeping the lines safe from GOC eyes and ears. They'd have to let slip some intel, by necessity of conveying it to one another. Kone and Lindsberg were at branch HQ, Rhiannon Locke en route to Africa, Cortes somewhere in Europe, "I've finished reading your report. Thankfully, whatever's causing the effect in animals doesn't spread if the meat is properly cooked. That's about the only good news. Bad news is we have no idea how far this has spread, and how bad it might get if we can't get it under control."

"Is that even a problem? Can't we just tell people it's E. coli and to make sure they cook their meat thoroughly? They're getting food, at least. I mean, fuck it; they may as well eat tainted meat than sandy shit, or nothing at all. They're little African peasants living in a third-world-hell-hole, we can't be snatching food from them."

Kone looked furious. Dodger felt a chill go through her. That's it, I'm gone. She had been getting on the nerves of management for too long. Every little thing she said she had to carefully monitor before saying it. Consequences of being as unconcerned with frivolous things like politeness and etiquette. She'd been kicked out of a lot of places, and fired from a lot of jobs, but she'd never felt such a perpetual state of oppressive moderation and paranoia as she did when talking around management. It had to be a problem with her, she had considered. But it isn't me.

"Dodger," It was Lindsberg stepping in now as the calm voice of reason, "When you get back from Somalia, we're going to have to have a little talk." That alone made her more anxious than any amount of screaming and cursing from Kone. And it was usually Kone who was the calm, reasonable one.

"I'm sorry," She muttered, clenching her jaw as heat rushed to her cheeks, "I submitted the report to Torres first, along with a sample. He's been examining it."

"And?" Kone asked patiently.

"It's definitely something, but we can't tell what. Our equipment here isn't sophisticated enough to discern what's actually causing the regeneration; bacterium, virus, prion…"

"Prion?" Rhiannon put in quizzically.

"I don't know. We don't know. This early on, we're speculating."

"I don't understand," Dr. Cortes put in, putting a hand on her forehead, "Could you- Could you explain it to me? I haven't read the report yet."

"It's the fungus. The— The Vesta Donation stuff. Somehow, animals are getting into it and eating pieces of it. I don't know how; we've been keeping the stuff tightly under watch when its in its fungal stage thing. Torres thinks there might be interference between his mods and the original control program the Vesta people put in. As for the animals… might be bugs, or rodents. Those then get eaten by bigger animals, those animals get eaten by even bigger ones… might be it spreads in the shit, too, so shit-eating animals like dogs and cats end up getting infected, too.

"What it actually does is kind of similar to what the fungus does— create something from basically nothing. Again, we don't know exactly how, but once it's metabolized in the animal, we completely lose track of the fungal cells. What starts to happen is basically uncontrolled cellular growth."

"Like a cancer?" Cortes asked.

Dodger hadn't thought of it that way, "Maybe. I think I mis-spoke, too—it's not uncontrolled growth; it's pretty well controlled. It basically starts rapidly growing cells all over the body, making an excess of skin cells, hair cells, blood cells, and so on. Leave it going long enough, you'd basically end up with a mound of meat vaguely resembling an animal, with probably six hearts and thirty gallbladders. Frank wanted to test, but animal testing gets people uncomfortable."

"Purely speculating here… when bone or tissue is cut out of the animal, the growth centers exclusively on regenerating the bone or tissue that was lost. It's like a hulled boat taking on water, and cutting out pieces of flesh would be like scooping out bucketful's of water."

"And the mental effects?" Rhiannon put in.

"Might be related. Possibly. Maybe it's more painful to let the flesh grow than to have pieces of it cut out every few hours."

"This is a fucking disaster," Rhiannon whimpered.

"I don't know. As long as people cook it, it's safe, right? Isn't that what you always keep saying, Locke; fear of the unknown is no excuse not to save people in trouble now?"

"Dodger…" Lindsberg warned. That tone again that pressed down on her. A "gentle menace", she'd called it before.

"We're trying to contain it," Dodger put in before they could keep chewing her out, "Exterminating the animals. Burning the corpses. But it's like pulling weeds one-handed. And there's new weeds every day. We need more resources to get this under control."

"Dodger, don't," Kone warned. His voice was so deep, it could be difficult to tell his mood over the tinny speakers of a laptop computer, "If the GOC gets word of this, they're going to assume we've lost control of the situation."

"We have lost control of the situation, it sounds like," Cortes put in before Dodger could do the same… and get yelled at for saying so.

"We have not lost control," Kone stated firmly, "Dodger, keep up the good work. Spread your contacts out further, keep your ear to the ground. Use whatever stockpiles of food we have to get people to stop eating this meat. Tell Frank to use whatever resources at his disposal to ensure the continued cooperation of tribal leaders and town elders. We're gonna need them — AMISOM is drawing forces out of Laascaanood to deal with Somaliland raiders. If— Listen to me, Dodger. If you start running out of food…"

Dodger grit her teeth, waiting for the obvious solution to come up.

"Worst case scenario only; use the Anabasis. Do not use it outside of Locke's default settings. Make sure the animals brought in are clean and edible. We don't need something worse than this to start infecting people."

Dodger sighed, and glanced about the faces on the screen. No challenges were made, so she nodded, "Alright. See you on the other side."

She closed out the windows, and snapped her laptop shut. One thing people hated more than anything was having basic necessities taken from them. Worse when it was taken away by healthy English-speaking Western men.

"That's not my concern…" She muttered to herself, sloughing off the burden, "I've got my orders."

The three volunteers conferred in front of the surgery room, in a discreet corner intended in the original architectural design of the building as a place to put a water basin. It had been deemed unnecessary.

"Am I the only one who feels we should not be trusting her?," Haji asked, "The longer she is here, the more this whole 'auditing' thing sounds like an excuse for infiltrating us and test something… strange downstairs. I mean no offense to the wise women, Mirra in particular, but they might be blinded by her position! What was that thing that come downstairs? And how is it that she, a Coalition officer, has a sister in the Mission Branch?"

"Everything we do here is strange. What makes what she does any different? I was a Coalition operative, too, and here I am. Besides, you don't get to choose your family…" Olympe shook his head at the suspecting volunteer. "Look, it's simple enough. It's a matter of whether you accept what Frank tells you or not. I trust Frank. I don't trust Locke, but I find no reason to be paranoid about it either."

"There is that," Lila said, her head uncovered as she left the surgery room, barely even having time to digest the news. "There is also the fact that Opal will not talk about her and has asked to be put in solo-work with one of the newbies as nurse. She only does that when she's in a bad mood."

Olympe frowned at that. "Lila…"

"You know me, Frans." She rapidly collected her headscarf, covering her head and ears. "I won't do anything against her, no matter who she is or what she did in the past. I am not that sort of woman anymore, and I am pretty certain she is not a Parahealther anyhow."

"What do you mean, Afwerki?," Haji inquired, curious.

"I have my reasons, dear. Where is Ahman, by the way?," she delicately answered.

"Frank told him and some of the kids to go burn some of that mutant meat. Right, that, too! What if it was Locke's fault, somehow!," the young man added. Olympe arced a brow.

"Even Jacob says it's his fault, Haji. Just let go."

"I'm coming to Somalia," Rhiannon's voice came out clearly from the little bird, "I'm so happy I'll get to see you in person again. Everything happened so fast, we barely got enough time to talk."

Priss shrugged, "We talked enough."

Rhiannon laughed, "You never were one for conversation."

Priss sat in her quarters, laptop on her bed. She was still in quarantine, after the furry beast came through the Anabasis. It had been taken peacefully, and wasn't showing any signs of illness after four days, but still they insisted on quarantining her. They couldn't find any signs of potentially dangerous pathogens in the beast yet, but not finding anything yet didn't mean it was safe for her.

"I'm in quarantine."

"I heard," Rhiannon kept her smile upbeat, "Don't worry, you should be out soon. By tomorrow at latest."

Everyone else exposed had been released already. They were keeping her in longest. It's because you don't belong here. Priss looked over at the Anabasis, on the table beside her. Had it always been able to talk? She remembered hearing that some of the researchers had talked to it, but couldn't remember if that was normal or some mental effect caused by exposure to it somehow.

"I just wanna… I wanna talk to you. About anything. The weather, even. I miss your voice. There's so much to catch up on… I mean, even though you're from another universe or whatever." Rhiannon just kept talking. So much nonsense. It wasn't as comforting for Priss as it was for her.

Priss had figured something had happened to her in this timeline to separate her from her family, "When I came here, I was in the basement of an abandoned school. Stuff brought in by the Anabasis tends to be in the same spot in one timeline as it was in the one targeted. Why was I in an abandoned basement?"

Rhiannon sighed, averting her gaze from the camera.

"I was dead. It's okay, you can say it. Probably mugged and stabbed, that would explain why I had nothing in my pockets."

"No, you… We didn't know. You had gone missing about twelve years ago. You were declared legally dead a while back. You were on your way home from school because you'd missed the bus, and you never returned. The school was searched but I guess they somehow missed your body…"

Priss swallowed lightly, and nodded. She'd expected it was something or other.

"I'm sorry," Rhiannon said, "I wanted to tell you, but like I said, everything happened so fast…"

Priss shrugged again, "It's not your fault."

It's not like the other Rhiannon would have opened the door and immediately snorted and said 'You're supposed to be dead, ha ha.' It's not like this Rhiannon doesn't respect you enough to tell you the truth up front. You don't belong here.

"How would you even tell someone that, after all they've been through?"

Like this, 'You're supposed to be dead, ha ha.'

Priss sighed, and pressed her hands into her eyes.

You don't belong here.

"What's wrong?" Rhiannon asked.

Priss looked up, seeing her sister still on the line.

"It's still hard trying to fit in here. It seems like every other thing I try to say ends up being racist or offensive in some way. I know not to say obvious stuff, but it's like every little thing can be twisted into something racist that I don't understand because I'm not from here. I've stopped trying to converse with people… Just simple, short statements and I get by."

Rhiannon grinned, "It's what you're best at."

Priss stared back at her.

"Sorry. Just relax. You're more well-regarded than you think. And you really are doing some good things here. Have you been getting along with the others? Opal, Jacob, Frank?"

Priss closed her eyes, longer than she intended, and slowly opened them, "Opal. She talks too much; makes my head hurt." She felt a strong urge to vent, but figured that was unwise… she preferred to complain about a person to their face, rather than behind their back. Besides, they trusted her… It wasn't her problem if that backfired in some way. "Foundation didn't work with anomaly-wielding humanoids. Still not used to it. Like leaving your house unlocked at night."

"Don't worry about it. You'll get used to it. Maybe not used to her, but as long as you two play nice."

Priss looked up again, at the door that was locked and sealed on the other side, as the staff waited the all clear before lifting the quarantine. Her quarantined because a googly-eyed man-bear ran past her, and an anomaly basically in charge of the entire operation. In context, it made sense, but…

Her gaze trailed off to the Anabasis again.

You don't belong here.

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