Who We Are

rating: +35+x

"There is no way you are drinking that."

"Oh, but somebody has to."

"You are just trying to spook me, aren't you? Tell me you are trying to spook me."

"I don't think he is trying to spoo-ook you, Frank!"

"Just shut up, Desjeux. Now, please, PLEASE, put the glass down-"

In a single swift movement, the Rabbi downed the half filled glass. It wasn't difficult; after all, it was a small one, a standard piece of plastic made to be filled, discarded and dumped in crazy parties where the young would go and hook up in so many cities of the industrialized world.

Or in some operations run by people from those countries in regions where plastic glasses were not so commonly used. Marere, Somalia, was one of such places.

Or in a very specific type of party within that operation. A party of three, cramped in the small lab organised in the large all-terrain heavy duty semitrailer that served as their temporary base of operations. A party composed of Frank Westinghouse, also called Skipper, Sarah "Opal" Desjeux and the Rabbi, Jacob Torres.

Who had just drunk a potentially lethal concoction. Frank remained frozen, his hand hovering close to where his holster used to be. Sarah looked a bit stunned but her excited grin was still there, with a certain measure of trepidation attached to it. Both of them looked at Jacob as if he was going to explode into a portal for the legions of hell.

"… nnno. Sorry," smiled the Rabbi, "It tastes fine. I mean, it is water, so it's not like it was gonna taste of anything in particular. What would hippopotamus pee taste like, anyways?"

Opal clapped her hands and hugged the Rabbi, the tension suddenly dispersed. "Oh, this is perfect, perfect! We'll finally be able to clean the water tanks!" She turned to Frank. "I'll go warn the others so they start unhinging them!"

The short woman zipped by Frank, who was grunting soundly at the scene. The Rabbi looked at him.

"Yeah, she's always that bubbly and it annoys you, I know… you could try and smile though." Frank rubbed his eyes at that. "Skipper, the Hippo magic works. What's the matter?", he calmly added.

Frank laid against the tank that occupied most of the semitrailer. It wasn't just a small mercy, he needed the moment of pause; his legs were shaking still, and he didn't want to show how scared he had been. Not to the Rabbi. He would never hear the end of it.

I'm not even wearing my gun anymore. Why do I keep going for my holster?

"Look, Jacob. We had an agreement. You and your people teach me about what we can do for all these poor people and fill that emptiness in my heart and all that crap, and I tell you people all you didn't ever think and needed to know about OpSec. You know, that thing necessary when taking anomalies in?"

"Abnormal donations, Skipper. I know it's an old habit, but really. Learn the lingo, okay?" the Rabbi answered; he was busying himself already with samples, already categorizing new vials of water from 'dirtier' to cleaner so they could test the Hippo. "It'll take us a while to actually clean the tanks, I'm afraid-"

"Anomalies, abnormalities, whatnots," Frank said. "We need operational security when dealing with them, or eventually we'll get a Trojan horse. Yes or no?"

"We need to trust someone too."

"Fuck that. You know better than to trust entities, particularly skip makers." Frank was feeling better. He stood again in the cramped interior of the semitrailer, the motion upsetting the resident of the water tank, who made a sound that could only be defined as a grave, moaning 'thaaaaaaaanks.'

That put him on edge again. "And I thought I had already told you to sedate the bloody thing!" About the same time Frank said the word bloody, there was another moan that could be transcribed as 'ruuuuuuude.'

That grated his nerves a bit further.

"Look, Frank," started Jacob, glancing at him as he searched for something in his work bench, "the Board took you in 'cause you know how to be paranoid, but I feel they sent you here, to me, to us, 'cause you couldn't know when not to be. Place the trusting ones and the ex-skipper together in the same room. You know, that sort of thing that turns into a gun fight or a good punch line for a bar joke. But both of us know it's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of training. I've accepted you will never be able to trust our donors and benefactors in the same way I instinctively know how and when to trust them."

"Bullshit", Frank said, adjusting his glasses of black, thin frame and staring at Jacob's back, "you trust them every time. That's no way to proceed. You don't understand these thi-" The "thing" in the tank moaned again. "You don't know anything about these 'donations', you don't actually know the motives of your benefactors and you still use them! Damn, Torres, you just want them to work, I get it! But you want it so badly? With that mindset I doubt you actually care about your safety, or the safety of others for that matter!"

Jacob stood still for just a moment, but it was enough to make Frank aware that he had gone too far.

"Well, not others, 'others', I mean, I'm not talking about the refugees-"

"Our benefactors. And our donors, our affiliates. And I do care. Are you done interrogating me, Agent Westinghouse?"

Jacob sounded more than a bit dry. Both stayed silent for a moment; Jacob kept searching between his things until he found the small vial with mercury he had been looking for. As he closed the drawers he had opened during the search, he sighed and turned towards Frank.

The stocky, balding man was staring blankly at the tank, the white-blue radiance from the fluorescent tubes set by it giving him a somewhat ghostly appearance.

"Sorry, Frank."

"Right. Yeah, I'm sorry too," he said. "But that shit was still reckless, Jacob."

"Look, I've said earlier I understand and I mean it. I would never take a donation from, oh, the Insurgents, or the Hammer, or, god forbid, the Marshall, Carter and Dark people… not that they would ever give us anything for free. I would never do something reckless around a recovery-"

"If we ever found one", sneered the other man. Jacob laughed as he pulled the culture to the small bio-hazards work bench.

"Yes, of course, it's unlikely that we would ever find abnormalities out there in the open. Terribly so. How many this month?"

"With or without the parasitic earrings of last weekend?" Frank answered, his pocket notebook already out. Jacob laughed again at his friend's incapacity to recognize sarcasm. "Why the laugh? It was a big outbreak… oh." He said, catching on.

"Yes, quite. Not that we ever find anything we can use as an asset, though… only Concerns. Which is why we have to trust our benefactors, Frankie. We'd be lost without them." Jacob answered. He passed a hand over his eyes before sighing and saying: "Look. I understand you feel like the entire Charitable is going to blow up on your watch because of me being careless with donations or Opal being too open about abnormalities to the refugees, but we have to trust. Okay? I trust donors, and I trust our Research Work Groups, and-"

"I thought this one was from a novel donor," Frank interrupted him. "We have to be careful."

"Sure, sure, it was from a novel benefactor, so what? It has been studied by Ruperts-2, it's clean." Jacob picked up a large hardcase and opened it. It was filled with a full body bio hazard suit. "Trust, Skipper. It's part of our objective. It's part of who we are. We can't help anyone if we aren't open to others. Both to those who offer their help," he pointed at the tank and its resident, who moaned again "and those who need it" ended, turning to his bio-hazard suit.

"Yeah, I know."

"Then don't sound so unconvinced. This is not the other Foundation anymore, Skipper. Get with the times already." Even if he could not see his face, that was already behind a bio-hazard helmet, Frank knew the Rabbi was smiling.

He left the metal room with a bit of a frown to let the scientist work and closed the trailer's door a bit stronger than strictly necessary.

The heat of Somali midday struck him. The camp was an unending mess of people coming and going, all of them unidentified, all of them anonymous and absolutely free to wander and wonder about the nature of the trailer, its occupants or their 'methods", which were being used in different operations all over the camp. He couldn't even believe how much of a nightmare this would be when the Containment Teams were called in to amnesticize and…

Oh. Right. He wasn't working for that Foundation anymore.

The veil that every Foundation field Agent had between their eyes and the world was lifted and, for an instant, all he saw was an unending mess of people coming and going, all of them willfully ignorant of anomalies. Or at least ignorant of the anomaly inside the trailer, which was Frank's only concern. For a moment, he knew he was free and doing his best to help others. He smiled, feeling somewhat relieved.

It didn't last.

Frank managed to walk for a few steps before checking for possible hidden weapons, certain attitudes an intruding agent would show, anything that would mean danger or a possible threat. He had been a Foundation agent for ten years. He did not remember how many artifacts, creatures or — he shuddered at the thought — people he had taken into Foundation custody, but he did remember the method. The process that allowed them to capture anomalies without destroying them and still come on top, with minimum casualties and so limited mayhem. That made him a valued Specialist at first, and a prized Security Executive member later. In a way, he was irreplaceable to the Work Group, but he never quite managed to fit in.

All in all, Agent Westinghouse would always believe the Foundation was necessary and efficient at what it did. He remembered their method so well because he had survived enough missions as to know it better than walking and breathing. You had to be a paranoid son of a gun because the alternative was a nondescript body bag.

The last one.

Frank snapped out of it when he realized he had been staring back at an old woman for whole minutes. She was sitting in a stool made out of plastic boxes and a square wooden plank. Even in the midst of a camp filled with people, Frank managed to get lost inside his own head.

Learned it better than to walk, my ass. Somebody could have stabbed me four times and you wouldn't have felt it until tomorrow morning, Frankie, he thought to himself. I'm getting soft. Or old. How was the sayin'? Old, sane, keen; with an Agent career, you have to pick two out.

Frank passed a hand over his black-grey hair. You never stopped being a Foundation field Agent.

He shivered. A young man had just walked past him, very close. So close that he thought for sure somebody had gotten to him. He reached for the reassuring weight of his gun and then remembered he did not use guns anymore because the MCF was very serious about that. And then Frank felt fear again.

It was just a kid. He did not seem to be a threat, there were AMISOM forces everywhere and he had spent three days making sure the camp was more or less safe by checking every angle, on every one person who meant something there. He had bought loyalties among the troopers. He was certain nobody was there to hunt him down. Intellectually, he was perfectly aware of all that.

As he tried to think, he realized his upset breath. It was the only sign he needed to understand that he was just having a crisis. He grunted, dizzy and feeling the panic raising through his throat and going back down in his chest, where it became a red-hot weight.

He looked for a quiet place — a smaller tent, empty save for a couple of NGO volunteers who did not pay attention to the man in the kaki-and-green uniform, because everybody knew how weird Manna Charitable Foundation Executive members were — and crouched, carefully drifting through anxiety and disjointed thoughts without letting them wash him away.

He took a pill from one of the front pockets in his vest and downed it with a quick sip from his canteen and tried to breathe deeply, as Desjeux had taught him to do, hah, you remind me of my girls when they are delivering, Skipper, and convince himself that everything was going to be okay, that he was not having a panic attack and that he just wanted it over so he could go over his damn business in less than ten minutes of senselessly panicking.

Then he noticed the two small girls, their hair covered in headscarves and wearing short, lively-colored dresses, that were looking at him from just outside the tent. His breath and heart rate were still fast, but he was slowly coming to his own self; at least he could think straight. However, the girls seemed scared. "I'm fine, I'm-crap, how did that go. Uh-right, raalli iga ahow? No? Wait, maybe, maybe in Arab-"

The one that looked older, who could not be older than thirteen, stepped forward and raised a hand and said: "A-are you alright?"

That shocked Frank for a moment. She spoke slowly, intoning every syllable, but he understood every word.

"What-right," he blurted, "the school. You've been going to school, huh? Who teaches you, Alba?"

The younger one smiled when she heard the name and held the older one's hand, saying something in a fast blurt of Somali. The older one listened to her, then said: "Alba teaches us good words."

"Right, right, that's very good-"

"She also tells us to be strong. To not allow to be hit, nor to do what we do not want to."

That shocked Frank a little more. "That's definitely good, too. Words to live by, sure," he ended up saying.

"She tells us to ask for help."

He winced slightly. "Do you-do you need help? I can call for someone else-" His heart was still racing. Damn anxiety issues and damn timing and damn-

"Why do not-", the girl hesitated and tried again: "why do you not ask for help? You look bad. Sick."

That certainly shocked Frank.

He was perfectly aware he did not have a satisfactory answer. A moment later, he said, as calmly as he could: "I'll be fine, it's nothing, just nerves. You know, tired. It's fine, really."

The younger child said something even faster than before, and the other one answered her, this time in Somali. They were smiling. Everything was alright.

Both waved goodbye as they left him to pass the rest of his crisis.

To Frank's delight, it was slightly shorter than usual.

The Foundation taught him to survive what he had faced, to live through it. But, evidently, they hadn't taught him to live with what he was. The Foundation, a necessity for the survival of humanity; and yet it was not good for humanity. No, not for "humanity"; for people. Which was why, Frank thought, he had gone over to the other side.

And, he realized in a surge of deep emotion, he belonged there.

He stood and left the tent, feeling a bit cramped but otherwise fine. He took his notebook out of its allotted pocket and wrote Need another date with shrink down.

Then, he heard his phone ringing.

"No. No, listen, I'm not a volunteer, I'm Frank West-I'm Frank Westinghouse!"

There were those days. Days when everything was apparently out to get you and you were knee-deep on it.

"Westinghouse! Yes, it has an "h", of course it-An ecSec! I'm a fucking ecSec! An Executive member, Security specialist-do you even understand me, you shithead? No, I'll say all the bad words I want, just get me the Mission Director!"

Days when the mud was not enough to hold you back, because you were furious, and fury was more than enough to make you wade across the marsh.

"I am aware, yes. Absolutely aware. I even know where you are. Do you know who are you talking to?"

Frank Westinghouse strode through the camp, now completely ignorant of what happened around him. A minute ago, he had received a message that had changed all his plans and was messing with his positive thinking thing, fast.

While he was put on hold to 'check his credentials' — "no, don't you dare, don't youuuu sonova-", — he checked again his text message inbox, just to make sure he was not making a hilariously stupid mistake. Things like those happened even to experienced Security Executive workers, right?

WPhO auditor delegate inbound. Prepare for new mission. O-1WG on the move in three hours. Highest priority. - Lindsberg.

Well, not to Frank.

Loan Lindsberg was the go-to man for all sorts of headaches and most of the problems that plagued Frank's life as a Security Executive member of the Charitable. Sure, he was his boss, the Rescue and Intervention Mission Deputy Director, and thus he was supposed to be an insufferable prick, but the way he cared, the way they all cared about him and all the people that worked for them, drove him nuts.

It was the fact that they actually cared instead of simply pretending that drove him nuts, of course.

Frank was aware that wasn't a healthy outlook on the problem, and he knew precisely why he felt this way. He was used to being treated as shit by his previous employers, and now only exchange employees made his life impossible. Everyone else actively tried to be both a friend and a workmate. Frank allowed himself a second to reflect on how abjectly bland and simple his life had become over the few last years.

He snorted at the thought. "Bland and simple, sure," he manically murmured to himself, which drew the attention of a couple of AMISOM soldiers on patrol.

They ignored him as soon as they noticed the MCF vest, leaving him to reflect on the place he held in the world.

When he joined the Charitable, many of its members treated him like a complete stranger would deal with a stranger coming from the other, hated Foundation: distance, caution, well-justified suspicion… Frank had been ready for that.

He had not been ready for the kind words, the empathy, the patience. God, the patience some of those people had with him. All those times he still thought as an Agent even when talking to people, when he kept thinking of Mission Directors as Level 3 and 4 personnel, and volunteers as class D personnel… although he had never voiced that mental comparison out loud, thankfully.

And, of course, his continuous and almost neurotic tendency to complain about every small "security breach" about secrecy. The first time he joined his first and only Work Group, he felt the people around him was actively opposing the very idea of cautious, planned approach to the exploitation of potentially dangerous anomalous processes. Frank's reaction to this attitude had been, of course, losing his shit and spreading it around by shouting to everyone.

More than once, Opal had felt profoundly disappointed with him. More than once, Jacob had thought him a lost cause. But he had changed, for the best, and others had most of the merit. He was aware of it now.

He put the phone back against his ear. Of course, the 9th Manna Overture was still going on. He would not mind it, or at least not so bloody much, if not for the fact that the thing was a memetic agent specifically designed to reduce telephone overload in the Johannesburg Office lines. In theory, Sarah told him once, the idea was sound; you put a meme that conveys interesting subliminal concepts, thus making you want to listen in the stand-by tune of your telephone, if you are a Manna Charitable Foundation Executive, but it is lost on anyone else, which triggers a mild cognitive effect; namely, you lose interest and want to go do something actually enjoyable instead of listening if you are not. That way, meddling snoopers stopped snooping early, and Executives still had the chance to talk to the big bosses, and made certain that any non-member that stayed on the phone for the entire length of the Overture would be really, really desperate to contact the MCF. Which was the whole point of the thing, in theory.

Of course, the fact that Frank had been an ecSec for years and he kept feeling the need to go solve a crossword, do his daily exercises regime or try to check new encrypted mail from his Foundation supervisors was not encouraging. In his mind, Frank knew he would forever remain a skipper, no matter what his heart may pledge to uphold.

And actually, it was his heart that kept beating the drums at the rhythm of his age-old guilt and shames, which held all that training, built-in instincts and obsolete customs in place to make sure they were used only when they became necessary. His current job was basically making sure that the kids did not do anything too excessive and got noticed, so that meant he had been promoted from being in the front lines to a PR position.

That line of flawless reasoning fell apart when he realized he was running out of breath, because he had been at the wrong side of the camp when he had received the SMS. He checked the song again, and thought of going back to his tent and resume once again chapter four of War and Peace which, his guilty mind reminded him, was in the same position he left it a month ago.


As he innerly expected, the song kept going when Frank reached the administrative section of the camp, now jogging with a patently ridiculous walk and trying not to exhaust his breath. Officials from several armed parties, volunteers from several other non-profits and Executive members of the Charitable had gathered by the tents, where they attempted to coordinate what, to all effects and purposes, was an organized retreat of the most active team in the camp.

That was, his own Work Group.

"Salut, Frank!"

Frank saw François Olympe, their assigned GOC liaison, Security member and mechanic specialist, coming towards him. The man was not the typical Coalition berserker. He had been a combat engineer and an accomplished mechanic for an Assessment Team, but eventually dropped out for personal reasons. Frank never asked him about them, and Olympe never asked him about his own reasons to desert the other Foundation. As tacit agreements went, it worked perfectly for both parties.

For the most part, Olympe served as a deterrent measure on his own, partly because his two meters and thirty centimeters of towering muscles were impressive enough to dissuade most possible assailants; and yet, the part that tended to scare those who would not find size concerning enough was his right arm. It was a Coalition-issued prosthetic, its intricate mechanisms covered by a thick plastic-like black skin simile with round, metallic knuckles.

According to Olympe, the thing was "mainstream" technology applied in a clever way, and had more cons than pros even with an optimal use and regular maintenance, which he dealt with himself.

However, both were hardwired into their alleged roles when they had joined the Charitable, and even if Olympe was an officer and a gentleman working for a non-profit association, right now he was just a pissed commando. And having an argument with a pissed commando who happened to have an armored prosthetic arm would not be a usual decision for any Foundation agent worth the title, and it certainly was not one of Frank's priorities.

"Hey, Frans." Frank placed his phone back in his pocket, giving in to the memetic song.

"Does this whole 'new mission' thing sound silly to you too?", Olympe asked. He never got quite rid of the French Guiana accent.

"Not really. I mean, yes, it is ill-timed or-well fuck that, it's straight out inconvenient. But I guess we have to just roll with it."

Olympe shrugged in a disconcertingly asymmetric movement. "I don't understand why are they doing this. We haven't been here for even one week. Why do they have to move us for? Was there an earthquake or something like that? It better be something big." Both men thought of big things why their International Board superiors might mobilize them. Both men shivered. "Well, not very big."

Frank nodded. He had to placate Olympe's need for explanations with a certain regularity, anyways.

"I know what you know, Frans. I'm sure we even got the same text from Loan," the ex-agent stated, in his better non-committal tone. "It's true, it's not usual, but we are already packing, apparently," Frank pointed at a few volunteers who wore the green-white chest guards that marked them as people from the MCF, running through one of the wider streets in the camp, "so we will have to do as always and just roll with it."

Olympe stared at him.

"This is not usual, Frank. We haven't been here a week. I think you mean like old times, yes?"

"Crap," he answered, closing his eyes. "I still do the oh-it's-fine-the-Foundation-keeps-me-on-the-move-all-the-time thing again, right?"

"Don't worry. It happens to me as well. Although with the Coalition we had better transport-"

"Well, no complaining, big man!", a pathologically cheerful voice claimed, coming from the administration tent.

The voice was followed by Sarah Desjeux, who was half as tall as Olympe, twice as wide and held the only thing resembling authority over every single member of her Work Group.

She was respected.

Sarah Desjeux was the mind and the soul of the Opal-1 Work Group which, as usual for a Mission team, received its name — or pseudonym — from its highest ranking leader. At the time, since the Work Group was mostly meant to perform Health and Prevention activities, the authority went to the person with the greatest know-how and experience on the matter; that was, without any shadow of doubt, Sarah, and their Work Group was so efficient at what they did that she would remain where she was for a long time.

There was also the usual confusion most newer volunteers felt when they worked with her, laughing even while under fire, snickering while performing surgery or telling horrible jokes to up morale in stupidly dangerous situations. The most told story in the Work Group went that, the day she died, they would find out that where all the guts were supposed to go there was just a massive heart. "Which would mean," Jacob always added when she was around, "that her heart is also her stomach. That does not explain why my repeated invitations to cook her dinner in my lab have not come to fruition yet, but I am a patient man."

And there was, of course, the thing that Schadenfreude Desjeux could not hold herself from doing. Having her way with you in the ways she found funniest.


Frank noticed how Olympe involuntarily stood at attention, and smiled. The man always reacted like that, but only with Olympe he didn't respond with anger. She did have that effect on people.

The chestnut mop of hair that covered not just her head but most of the her small, round body swung from side to side, released from the tight bun she used to tie it on while working. It was a mesmerizing sight, Frank thought, while slowly following a few locks as they evolved in their fall over Sarah's face.

"I will have you know" she stated at Olympe's stomach, "that we are the only people who can fulfill this mission. Rupert-3 is too busy finding a cure for the common cold, or something, so they are not deploying in the front lines. Such unexpected news!-Not." She sneered at her own words. "Better yet, the other eight Work Groups are completely tied down at Mogadishu and the Southern clusters. They are needed."

"All eight groups?" Frank inquired. "Even Martin-1? I thought they had a hundred-"

"Sure, sure, a hundred and ten people, God bless them large Groups." Sarah seemed to dismiss the concept with the mere way she pronounced 'large'. She came right to him, stabbing Frank's chest with a long, pointy finger. She knew that made him nervous. "You know what? There is a problem when a hundred and ten people are involved. It begins with an L."

"Opal, personal space, please."

"No, Frank, it's logistics. It started with an L, remember?" She stated, coming even closer. Frank could see over Sarah's head how Olympe tried very hard not to smile.

"Dammit-Sarah-get-away," he hissed, to her delight. It was not even a mind game, she just loved laughing at them. And part of the spell was that no one ever got angry at her.

"Well, you get the idea then, gentlemen." Frank and Olympe stood to attention again. "We will be leaving in a matter of hours because there is an emergency someone must cover and there are no other Groups to spare. We are closer to the place than anybody else. The Marere Programme will be handled by our associates and the AMISOM… it's a shame they won't be having our assistance, but they'll get over it. I'll be sending you travel plans over the next hour. Check your phones. Questions?"

"I've been trying to reach Lindsberg-"

"That's not a question, Skipper."

"Sure-it-isn't-will you let me finish!?" Sarah spun, turning away from the fussed Frank, while laughing a diaphanous laugh. She stared at Olympe, who tried to hide his own grin as much as he could. Opal stood at attention before him.

"How about you, soldier? Questions?"

"No, ma'am."

She plays us like if we were fiddles, dammit, Frank thought, amused despite himself. He praised himself for her reaction and started talking again.

"I do have a question, Sarah, please-don't-come-closer-thank-you. It's a simple question. What is that emergency? And why is the WPhO-"

He stopped. Sarah had become suddenly serious. She was playful even while assisting births, and now she was looking pensive. When she talked, she talked in a soft, firm voice.

"It's a potential Sour outbreak, Frank. Near Laascaanood. Mission Watch warned us yesterday."

Frank's eyes opened and his eyebrows arced in that way, he was sure, that they did when he felt repugnance, fear or both. The Sour…

"Crap. Laascaanood… that's thirty thousand people, isn't it?"

"It hasn't started yet. Mission Watch is pretty certain most affected people will only be latent carriers by now, so secondary prophylactic measures should be enough for starters. We did bring Prometerine for a reason," she stated. "Albeit I didn't expect it to be happening this close to us, it's a great chance to make a difference."

Frank saw the light in Opal's eyes as she said those words. He liked that fire. "Right, it makes sense they have to send us," he admitted. "When do we leave?"

"In… two hours and a half now, as ordered. No time for delays!," she said, consulting her phone. Immediately afterwards, she pulled one of the scrunchies she accumulated on her wrist and began the delicate and topologically-advanced task of tying her hair back into her usual bun. "You will be overseeing and coordinating with the AMISOM guys who have to escort us, Olympe," at the sound of his name, the ex-soldier briefly saluted and moved into the multitude of officers in the administrative tent, "and you, Frank, you will go first and do your magic."

"Got it, Opal," he answered. He didn't like that part of his job all that much — since, for all intents and purposes, it consisted on scouting ahead, knowing who was the right people to talk to and their respective prices. But he tried to share the atmosphere of optimism. "I'll try to not strain our bribe budget."

The mop had already collapsed into a surprisingly elaborate braid. Underneath it, Sarah snickered kindly. "Shush, you. Ah, and one other thing, Skip. You'll act as the escort for that auditor person."

"Oh, sh-aha."

They always did that. They always gave him bodyguard duty.

Frank's right hand collided against his already furrowed brow while the other one uselessly looked for the comforting shape of his holster. He ended up putting his hand against the bulging pocket where he had placed the notebook. It wasn't the same. Can you suffer from phantom limb if the limb you've lost was a firearm?

"Say what?", he finally managed to spout.

"It makes sense, too," she calmly started, paraphrasing his previous words. "You are the best suited person we have, and you do have training for that sort of thing. We need Olympe and his squad to keep the peace within the camp, so it's you or no one. Besides, you are good at public relations! Better than the credit you give yourself for it."

"I thought I helped them do the peacekeeping thing, Opal."

"Right, help. They can handle a small camp, it's gonna be a few hundreds the first days, and then we will get reinforcements."

"You said Laascaanood, right? Do you realize it is one of the more difficult areas in all of Puntland? It could go to Somaliland the day after tomorrow, and I can't do my job if I can't talk to my contacts over there. I can't play babysitter while meeting clan leaders, and if anyone decides to move over here, I won't be able to cover all our activities!"

The bun was almost finished. "But most of them are rather civilized, are they not? We are talking about Laascaanood, it's a large town. Mission Watch will fetch you phone numbers and money whenever you need them, don't worry about that."

"That may work for city residents, but bandits and lowlifes don't have registered phones, Opal," Frank grunted. "I have to meet their leaders in person, or at least by proxy. I can't do that from a desktop, nor while leading a pencil-pusher by the hand!"

"Well, it will have to do, Skipper."

"No, see-"

Sarah Desjeux faced him and shouted. "Skipper! If you can't, you can't. Enough with the worrying, we have been in worst places. We have gone completely blind into missions before, and it turned out fine!"

Frank was about to rebuke the multiple fallacies in those statements when he saw Sarah's eyes. They said it all.

He had forgotten that. He kept forgetting it. The reason why so few actual, life-long members of the Charitable asked for security positions, and the reason that those positions were filled by people used to anomalies. Sarah's lips drew a beautiful smile, but her eyes were filled with desperation.

People needed her. Children needed her. And she had the means to help them.

She had to go there.

The bun was finished, and thus, his boss looked at him from half a meter down, concern in her face. Desperation went down under her usual mask of amused grins, now tempered by a just a hint of compassion.

"Look, Frankie… don't worry, seriously. We will make do with security. The AMISOM and the Transitional militias will secure the camp, and we are not going to do any trips to the town without escorts. I promise. But an auditor-you know they are part of the Coalition. And you know how serious the Coalition gets when abnormal assets are involved, and more still in an area this hot."

Frank let out a heavy sigh. He knew that too, and a freaking hippo in an aquarium was not worth the effort. Normally, the Charitable wouldn't even bother reporting to the Global Occult Coalition, the militant branch of the hidden occult communities recognized, ratified and supported by the UN; however, in an area with such a volatile mix of dangerous factions and splinter groups, certain people might find anomalies more than worthy of their attention. Certain people who would be more than willing to pay handsome figures and spare no expense to acquire MCF methods, equipment or assets, or even persons.

Some other NGOs had to worry about being kidnapped and turned into exchange chips for fellow insurgents or criminals, or being killed in a dusty back alley so far away from home. The MCF had to worry about being kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the other Foundation. Or a number of other groups with access to forms of cruel and unusual execution he didn't want to imagine.

That made the current agreement between the Charitable and the Coalition, that gave them a seat in the Regulation Group of the International Board, rather advantageous to both parties; Coalition assessment teams had received more than one tip from MCF Mission Watch personnel which had assisted them in their 'five-fold mission' more than once, and Work Group volunteers had the guarantee that, even if something went terribly, violently wrong, at least the Coalition had to listen to them.

And, after all, they both used abnormal methods to help humanity. They were polite enough to disagree in everything else, but similarities were surprisingly enough.

Of course, it did not make Frank's work any easier. The World Parahealth Organisation, formally a member of the Council of 108 that founded the Coalition, was just an advisory and research institute formed by shamans and witch doctors, the miracle workers of the old world that had learned about the methods of the new; namely, lab coats and the scientific method.

In a way, they reminded him of the Foundation, but he would be extremely careful to not mention that opinion out loud in front of either parties.

"So what, they are staying with us for the whole tour?"

"'For as long as they have to.' That's what Lindsberg said." Sarah placed a hand over Frank's forearm and kindly caressed it while dedicating a sad smile to its owner. "Don't worry too much, Skipper. Besides, you can leave them around the camp if you have to go on a trip, we'll take good care of her. These Phoo people are usually just a bit stuck-up and they think field work happens exclusively to other people, but they get used to it pretty quickly. They are healers, after all. Consider them…" she looked for a word, murmuring for a moment before remembering it: "Oh, right, an intern!"

Frank simpered at the statement. He was almost certain Sarah was just trying her best to make a joke.

"Thanks, Sarah. I'll do my best to… well, to protect them, I guess. Who are they, anyways?"

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