The Dark Side of Ur (Nanowrimo Story)



  • Emro was the first to go.
    Nane got sick right after that. I visited her at her house for tea and found her in bed, propped up on pillows and staring blankly at the wall like Emro had done.
    “Nane?” I asked quietly. I went to her bedisde and sat beside her, taking her hand. “Nane what’s going on?”
    “It’s the end for me I think, dear,” she said, her voice weak.
    “Have you seen a doctor?”
    “What could they do but watch, and set me in a hospital to die? No, if I’m going to go, I want to go at home, peacefully. I don’t want to be all hooked to wires and tubes. It’s a personal thing you know, going home.”
    I swallowed hard. “Nane what do you think is happening to us?”
    She knew what I meant: What was going on to the people who had been kidnapped? Why were we all of a sudden getting sick like this?
    And the subtext: Was I next?
    She coughed a dusty cough and then wiped her mouth with her hand, closing her eyes. “I don’t know, Miso. I was fine yesterday and then today… I couldn’t get out of bed.”
    “What do you feel?”
    “My body hurts. It’s like after they gave us the drugs they were testing in us -- that kind of all over body pain. And my kidneys hurt. Isn’t that funny? I’ve never been able to just feel my kidneys before, but now I sure do feel them, and they hurt like the dickens.”
    I’d been hurting more, recently, too, and I couldn’t stop myself from worrying about what was going to happen to me, even though I felt selfish for worrying.
    “Nane, you’re strong…” I began.
    But she shook her head. “Strong doesn’t have anything to do with it sweetie,” she said. “This is something Else.”
    I swallowed hard again and ran my hand through her hair, soothing her. “Can I get you anything? A cup of tea or ..?”
    She shook her head and closed her eyes again, then took my hand and held it. “Just stay with me please?”
    “Of course I will.”
    “And don’t make a fuss, when it’s over. Just let me go. I’m old, and I’m ready.”
    I was glad her eyes were closed so she couldn’t see the tears streaking down my face, and I sat with her and held her hand until it was over. She died peacefully, like Emro; she was breathing and alive one moment, and then she took a breath and exhaled and was just… gone.
    I kissed her on the forehead and covered her with her blanket, and then called Nick.
    He could tell something was wrong as soon as he heard my voice. “Miso? What is it?”
    “Nick, it’s Nane. She’s gone.”
    “What? What do you mean? Where’s she gone?”
    “I mean gone like Emro gone.”
    “What? When?”
    “Just now. I’m at her house with her. I --” I choked, and had to take a moment to swallow my tears, “I was here with her. She wanted me to hold her hand. And then she just…” I started sobbing again.
    “Stay where you are, Miso. I’ll be right there.”
    I knew Nane hadn’t wanted a fuss, but the doctors needed to do tests, to find out what was going on with us. Two people in the span of a week -- that wasn’t a coincidence, that was malice.

  • When Nick showed up, he put his arm around me and led me outside while the doctors and moderators took Nane away to the hospital for testing.
    “How are you feeling, Miso?” he asked.
    “Sad. Scared. Well… Terrified, actually,” I admitted. “And -- Nane? She was so sweet. She didn’t deserve any of this.”
    “None of you deserved any of it. We need to figure out what’s going on, and fast.”
    “Should we let the others know what’s been happening?”
    “We don’t even know what’s happening, other than that y’all are suddenly dying from organ failure.”
    Nick walked home with me and told me to get comfortable on the sofa. He put together a meal with Lumilda -- beans and rice and tortillas and cheese and meat and all of it was hearty and smelled delicious -- and then unpacked his nurse’s bag. “I want to take your vitals before you eat, if that’s okay,” he said.
    I nodded. “Yeah that’s fine.” The food looked delicious but it wasn’t going anywhere, and I maybe was.
    “Everything looks normal,” he said after he’d examined me top to bottom. He’d even felt my lymph nodes and checked my tonsils. He handed me my plate of food and I went to sit next to Lumilda.
    “What is going on Nick?” she asked. She hadn’t touched her food.
    “I don’t know, honestly. Nobody has any idea. We just need to keep on top of it and --”
    “And then what,” she interrupted, “just keep watching people die?”
    I looked down at my food, feeling like I could figure out the answer, if only I had enough time. There was some kind of connection that I wasn’t seeing. Of course I didn’t have a medical license or any training but I felt like there was a simple answer that everyone was overlooking.
    Lumilda and Nick were arguing while I ate. I didn’t listen, and I didn’t interrupt. They did this sometimes, more frequently lately. I didn’t know why but they always seemed to settle it between themselves so I wasn’t too worried.
    I tried to eat everything on the plate, even though they’d given me a large amount, because I was still underweight. I couldn’t seem to put weight on anymore no matter how much I ate, and I knew it was the effects of whatever I’d been given at the Facility.
    As I was finishing the food, it occurred to me that the weight loss might be the reason for the organ failures lately. Neither Emro nor Nane had been the type to eat a lot, and both were severely underweight. It was something we’d talked about, but they just didn’t want to eat -- they didn’t feel like it, they didn’t want to get fat again, they had a whole bucket full of excuses. I personally didn’t care if I got fat again, I just wanted the effects of the mystery drug to get out of my system, and eating seemed a good way to stick it to whoever had done this to us.
    But now Emro and Nane were gone, and all we had was speculation.
    I realised that Lumilda and Nick had gone silent and were watching me.
    “Yeah?” I asked, looking from one to another.
    “Miso, how are you feeling?” Lumilda asked me carefully.
    “I’m fine, why?” I cocked my head to one side.
    “You sure?” Nick asked.
    “If I wasn’t, you two would be the first I’d tell.”
    “Well you’re eating well,” he commented.
    “How’s your pain been?” Lumilda asked.
    Oh, she’d gotten me. “Worse,” I admitted.
    They frowned. “Where’s the pain?”
    “All over. Mostly in my belly though, down low.”
    “Well you have been eating a lot,” Nick commented. “It could just be digestion.”
    I hoped.
    Lumilda didn’t look as hopeful. “This is personal I know but my dear are you pooping enough?”
    I blushed. “Yes I am pooping enough thank you and please never ask me that again.” I laughed embarrassedly. “That’s the kind of question my mom is supposed to ask me.”
    “Maybe we should call her,” Lumilda said.
    “No, no we can’t. She’d just worry.” I frowned.
    “She’s going to find out sooner or later, Miso,” Nick said. “Wouldn’t you rather her hear about what’s going on from you and not at the end of the line from some doctor or nurse?”
    I sighed. He was right of course. “I’ll call her when I’m done eating,” I said, and got up for more food. If I was still eating, I could put off calling my mom.
    “Laurelie deserves to know,” Lumilda said, rolling behind me into the kitchen and taking my plate from her. “Call her now and I’ll serve you more food if you’re actually hungry.”
    She knew me too well. I wasn’t actually hungry, I just wanted to avoid an uncomfortable and perhaps tearful conversation.
    I pursed my lips and went to the phone.

  • “Mom?”
    “Hey baby, what’s up?” I could hear the sound of cat food falling into a dish.
    “Is now a bad time?”
    “No honey I’m just feeding Mittens.”
    Mittens was a grey street cat that was the most ugly cat I’d ever seen, covered in irregularly shaped black and dark grey splotches, that my mom insisted was beautiful despite her course fur, giant bald ears, tiny feet and nub of a tail. “How is Mittens doing these days?” I asked, stalling.
    “Oh you didn’t call to talk about Mittens did you? She’s fine, but what’s really why you’re calling?”
    I heard Mittens meow close to the phone; Mom had kissed her.
    I scratched my head. “Mom, there’s something I need to talk about with you. Can you maybe come over for a little while?”
    “Of course honey. Right now? It’s past dinner time…”
    “Yes, if you could please? It’s important.”
    “I’ll be right there.”
    It didn’t take long to walk across Shimla Mirch, and even past sunset there was ambient light from the bogs, and from bonfires and lanterns. It was a beautiful, safe, warm place. My mom arrived quickly and we sat on the giant cushions on my floor. Nick and Lumilda passed around cups of tea.
    “What’s going on honey?” Mom asked.
    I looked down in my tea cup. How would I tell her that people were dropping dead and I might be next? I cleared my throat.
    Nick saved me. “Laurelie, something’s going on with the people we rescued,” he began.
    “Something? Like what?” she asked, immediately wearing her concerned-mom face.
    “They’re--” Lumilda began.
    “--getting sick,” Nick interrupted, and gave her a Look. Lumilda squeezed her lips together.
    “I’m going to go get a blanket,” she said, “Laurelie do you want one?”
    My mom shook her head no, and Lumilda wheeled out of the room to the bedroom.
    “What kind of sick?” Mom asked.
    I cleared my throat again.
    “Sick bad,” I managed.
    “It’s worse than that isn’t it?” she asked.
    Lumilda wheeled back in and tossed me a blanket, and then wrapped one around herself. Her mother, Agnes, had made them.
    “Yes,” I said, wrapping the blanket more tightly around my shoulders. “They’re dying, mom.”
    I could see her swallow hard, and she blinked a few times, whether from nerves or blinking away tears I couldn’t be sure.
    “How are you feeling, Miso?” she asked, emphasis on ‘you’.
    “I’m fine,” I lied. “Not tired or anything.”
    “He’s hurting more than usual,” Lumilda said. I glared at her. ‘What,’ she mouthed at me, then went on, “We’re feeding him lots and otherwise he’s doing okay.”
    “Are you pooping alright?” Mom asked. Of course she did.
    “Yes Mom,” I sighed. “I’m pooping fine and I’d also like to not talk about my pooping please.”
    Nick stifled a laugh. I glared at him too.
    “Well okay guys, what can I do?” My mom uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them and took a long sip of tea.
    “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I think we may want to start rounding up the people we rescued and keeping a close eye on all of them.”
    “That’s seventy people,” Lumilda gasped. “You can’t possibly cover every single one!”
    “I can try,” I said. “And I won’t be alone. I’m sure our friends can help.”
    Mom nodded. “I know Everfawn will help too, and I can find some of my own friends who can join in. We can get everyone covered. There are probably other problems that are preceding the deaths, things we can measure and use to predict the others’ deaths, and if that’s the case maybe we can stop anyone else from dying.”
    It was a good plan. “We can start tomorrow,” I said.
    Nick gathered the cups and took them to the sink. “I need to get home, Jaylee will be home from school soon and I need to make her dinner.”
    “Alright, Nick, thanks for coming over,” I said.
    Lumilda nodded at him. “Yeah, thanks. Can you come by tomorrow and help us make up a list of people to start visiting?”
    “Absolutely. I’ll see you in the morning.”
    He grabbed his bag and left.
  • My mom kissed me on the forehead and let me know she’d be back in the morning also, and left behind Nick.
    “Come on sleepyhead,” Lumilda said to me, and took my hand. “Time to go to bed, your favourite part of the day.”
    “Oh you know me so well,” I joked, smiling at her.
    She pulled me down and kissed me hard on the lips. “Don’t you dare die Miso. I love you, you muffin.”
    I kissed her back deeply, and we went to bed.

    The sun rose through the mist off the water, and the warm light slid across our bed. I curled closer to Lumilda, wrapping my arms around her and not wanting to get up. She snuggled into me. I kissed her on the cheek.
    “Can we just stay like this all day please?” I asked, my lips against her hair.
    “There is work to do my love,” she said, but pressed herself more closely against me and held me tight. “We must do this work because I do not want you to die, and we need to figure out how to make sure things are going to be alright for you.”
    “And for the others,” I said. I closed my eyes.
    “Yes, for the others too.”
    We both sighed and laid there for a few more minutes before we got up. I followed her out into the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator. We were running a little low on food again -- probably because I kept eating all of it -- but we still had cheese and bread and eggs. The eggs here were from the egg trees native to the firebogs. Lumilda still talked sometimes about how strange they were compared to the chicken eggs from Nottis and Drifa. Apparently those ones were small and could fit in the palm of your hand.
    Well, firebog eggs could fit in your hand too if you had really, really big hands. I laughed at my own thought and Lumilda looked at me strangely, then smiled.
    “I don’t tell you enough how much I’m happy we’re together,” she said.
    I could tell she was worrying about me, because she never said anything like this. She didn’t have to. We just… knew.
    I walked over to her, holding one of the giant eggs and then set it in her hands. “I love you more than the size of that egg,” I said, and she laughed.
    “Okay weirdo.”
    I cooked breakfast and she read the newspaper while I cooked.
    “There are another three people missing,” she frowned. “One’s even from the Vortex. This is bad, Miso.”
    I walked over to her with the bread I’d been buttering still in my hand.
    “Where in the Vortex? Isn’t Tick from there?”
    “Yeah, he’s from the Sea of Non-Specificity. This one is from [somewhere else]. A teen - just fourteen years old. She disappeared on her way home from school; the last place she’d been seen was at school, and then she never came home.”
    “This is getting bad,” I said.
    “It was already bad. It’s getting worse.”
  • We made some calls and then went to the Herb Gardens to meet. Tick had come down from Nottis recently so he was there, along with Medds, Alexx, Argon, and Everfawn, plus myself and Lumilda. There were also a couple of the people from the support group, Kennes and Winter. Nick was still at work at the hospital and my mom was at the university.
    We walked to the far end of the Gardens and set up a couple of blankets to sit on. Tick picked a Purple flower and nibbled at it’s leaves a moment before Lumilda noticed and Winter snatched it from his hand, laughing.
    “We don’t need you hallucinating right now Tick,” she said, “it’s not a good time.”
    “Eh, it’s always a good time for Purple.”
    It was a good ice breaker, and we all laughed. Tick spat out what he’d been chewing and kicked it into the dirty.
    “Alright, so tell us what’s going on?” Winter demanded. She tucked her white hair behind her ears and pushed her big silver glasses up her nose, putting on her Serious Face.
    “People are dying,” I said. I tried to be calm, but obviously it was not a calm thing to say, and a look of panic ran through the group.
    “People are also going missing,” Lumilda added. “We think it’s like before.”
    “Like when we were taken?” Kennes asked.
    “Yeah,” I said.
    “You said people are dying. What from?” Argon asked. He studied medicine at the University at Jethimadh and although he didn’t yet have his medical license he was very close. He only had about a month left before he graduated.
    “Well, the official reason is organ failure, but we don’t know why their organs are failing,” I explained. “Nick would do a better job explaining this.”
    “And I’m assuming you mean just people like us,” Winter said. “People who were held at the Facility?”
    “Yeah,” I said, “that’s the problem.”
    “So whatever they gave us is killing us,” Kennes said. “Sounds easy enough to fix.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
    “How can we stop this? We don’t even know what you all were exposed to, or even if you were exposed to the same things,” Medds said.
    “Argon, maybe you can help,” I said. “You have access to the research laboratory at the University. Maybe you can help run some tests, see if there are any commonalities in our blood or something?”
    “Or something,” Argon said. He scratched his chin. We were silent, to give him time to think. Finally he said, “Yeah, I can do some blood draws. We’ll need as many of you guys as you can round up. There were seventy of you right?”
    “I was number seventy-one,” I said. “That was how many were at the Facility anyways.”
    “Alright, why don’t we start rounding up everyone and meet at the University tomorrow afternoon? But you three, Winter, Miso and Kennes -- why don’t you come today so we can sit down together and think about what it is we’ll even be screening for. We still don’t know much about what was done to you. We need a starting point for what to look for.”
    “Okay,” I said, “Lumilda, can you please make the calls to the others?”
    “What time do we all want to meet?” Winter asked.
    “Call it noon,” Argon said. He sighed deeply and ran his hands through his hair. It was a habit he’d picked up from Tick.
    “I’ll help with the calls,” Tick said, speaking up.
    “Can I just say something?” Alexx said.
    “Yeah, of course,” I said.
    “Hey I just, really don’t want you to die okay?”
    “Aw man, I’m not going to die. I have absolutely zero plans to die. What about you? Kennes? Winter?”
    “Nope, not me.” Winter put on the best smile she could manage.
    “No death plans here mate.” Kennes gave a double thumbs-up.
    Alexx did not look happy. I scooted over and gave him a hug. “We’re going to make this right,” I told him. “You’re going to help, and everyone’s going to work together, and everything’s going to be fine.”

  • I wrote down a list of everybody from the group I could think of off of the top of my head. Lumilda had climbed down out of her wheelchair and stretched out on the picnic blankets, laying her head in my lap. The first ones to come to mind were Nane and Emro, but of course they couldn’t come. They were dead. I swallowed back tears and started writing: Julian X., Armindo, Julia, Kennes, Searah, Sophie, Fortentia, Winter, Temmes, Julian B., Wolfe, Starlin, Mary Ficke, Celeste, Saudra, Kaleb, Kattan, Mary Jones, Armin, Selkie, Phoenix, Griffin, Finflux, Mayhoor, Wildheart, Sivien, Cougar, James, Jon, Luka, Kannan, Mista, and Durzha. I couldn’t remember any of the others, but these were the ones who came to our support groups regularly. There seemed to be a pattern to the ones taken, but I couldn’t think of it -- not until Medds said it.
    “You know, of all the people I’ve met who went through what you went through, Miso,” he said, “it seems like an awful lot were from the firebogs and the areas around it, like Ix and Ilmenskie. There were a couple from Kloro too I think but…” He trailed off and thought.
    “Dang you’re right,” Winter said. She tucked her hair behind her ears again, which she seemed to always do when she was nervous. “I’m originally from Jethimadh.”
    “I was visiting Chakra Phool when I was taken,” Kennes said. “I live in Groddle though, that’s where I was going to college. I only hang out here these days because, well, my friends back in Groddle don’t really understand things like why I have the nightmares and why I don’t like people standing behind me and things.”
    “Wait though, wait,” Lumilda said, sitting up. “Everyone that I’ve talked to was from the firebogs and the surrounding areas, if not Uralia itself. And Uralia was where the Facility was…”
    “Lumilda! Where are the new people being taken from?” I asked.
    “Up north,” she replied immediately. “The most recent was in Pollokoo, and I only remember that one because the one before that was Pollokoo also.”
    “If people were taken from the firebogs because that’s where the facility was near, maybe the new people are being kidnapped because they’re near a new facility?” Medds suggested.
    “Yeah that’s what we’re getting at,” I said.
    “But that’s if there even is a new facility. These might just be, I don’t know, people getting lost or something?”
    “I’m wagering on the ‘or something’,” Argon said. “But let’s each focus on one thing at a time. Miso, come with me for tests today at the University Hospital. Lumilda, see what you can dig up about where the missing people are from. See if there are any patterns there.”
    “And the rest of us?” Kennes asked. “Should we just wait to drop dead?”
    “No,” Alexx said. “Let me ask you guys this: Who’s hurting? Who’s feeling the worst right now? Like rate it from one to ten, ten being the absolute worst.”
    “Eight,” Kennes said immediately.
    “Yeah, about an eight for me too,” Winter admitted reluctantly.
    “And Miso?” Alexx asked.
    I rubbed my chin. “About a five I guess,” I said. “I’m uncomfortable but not really hurting badly.”
    “So everybody just do what Miso’s doing,” Alexx said.
    “What even is Miso doing?” Winter asked.
    “Eating,” Lumilda laughed. “He’s always eating.”
    It was true. I always had something I was nibbling on.
    “Eating is hard for me,” Winter said. “I always feel sick afterward.”
    “Well, so do I,” I said, “but I do it anyway because food is delicious.”
    They laughed, but then looked thoughtful. “That might be a key to surviving whatever is going on,” Argon said. “Maybe just keep feeding the thing that’s eating you and it won’t eat your organs. It will just eat all the food you’re giving it.”
    “Geez that makes it sound like we’ve got a parasite or a monster devouring us from the inside,” Kennes said.
    “Yeah well, we don’t know that you don’t,” Argon said.
    “Ew,” Winter commented.
    “Alright, everybody, we know what we’re doing. Let’s get started.”

  • I walked with Argon to the University Hospital in Jethimadh. It was kind of a long walk but it was a pleasant day, and walking in the ‘bogs always cheered me up. I couldn’t believe Nane and Emro were dead. Just the other day they’d seemed fine. But I thought Argon might be on to something with the food thing, because it was true that neither of them were eating very much. They’d had the hardest time with the infusions though, and were always sick to their stomach.
    “Could it have just been the infusions that made them sick?” I asked Argon. “Like maybe there’s no ‘pattern,’ no ‘nefarious Thing’ that’s afflicting us. Maybe they just had a bad reaction to the infusions.”
    “A year later?” Argon countered. “After everything, they suddenly now have a reaction to the infusions? Nah-unh. I don’t think so.”
    We walked in silence a little longer, and then I asked, “So what do you think we should be looking for with your tests?”
    “We’ll start with whatever seems relevant; tell me about your symptoms again. What happened after you were drugged?” he asked.
    “Well, the fevers were the biggest thing. And someone said that what I was given was viral, or possibly genetic --”
    “You can’t modify someone’s genetic code on purpose unless they’re still an embryo, and you’re…. Not an embryo.” He laughed.
    “Yeah I guess not,” I smiled. “So viral then?”
    “Sounds like. So I guess that’s what I’m going to look for first -- I’ll screen you for any known and unknown viruses.”
    “Wouldn’t something like that have shown up in the tests before..?” I had gone through batteries of tests when I’d gotten back from the ‘adventure’ and all that had shown up was autoimmune illness, and the inflammation that went with it. The doctors at the time said the fevers were common in people with autoimmune illnesses.
    “Not if it was like, dormant,” Argon said. “Sometimes viruses can ‘hide’ in your blood. It can take months or even years, sometimes decades even, for them to be found. And once they’re active, things go wild.”
    I swore under my breath. “Do you think that’s what’s going on here?”
    “Honestly?” he said, “I’d bet on it.”

  • We walked into the lab and he had me change into a hospital gown. The gowns here in Jethimadh were specialised -- instead of the typical white or yellow, they had printed designs on them so patients didn’t feel so stripped of their individuality. I thought it was a nice gesture on the part of the hospital.
    I changed and then got seated on an exam table in the lab. Argon brought in an IV hookup to make it easier to draw all the blood he needed. “This is going to pinch a bit,” he said, “but I’m using the smallest needle we’ve got, for your comfort, since this is going to take awhile.”
    “Thanks,” I said. Little things like that always made me feel like the doctor really thought of me as a person and not just a patient.
    As he drew vial after vial of blood, Argon asked me questions, some of which were repetetive, or seemed to be to me. What were the fevers like? What kind of pain was the pain I was having? When did everything start? Right when I arrived at the Facility, or after? Did I know how many doses of the mystery drug they gave me? When did I first notice the weight loss? Were there any specific foods they gave me to eat more often than others? And on and on.
    It had been a year. I don’t know why he expected me to remember all those details -- and yet, I found I was remembering more than I thought I would.
    After he set all the vials of blood aside, he made an extensive series of notes in a file and set that aside too.
    “Come on, I want to run some endurance tests,” he said. He took me into a separate room down the hall and hooked me up to monitors of various kinds. My whole body was strung up with wires, and if they’d had lights on them I would have looked like a Yule Tree. He put me on a treadmill and asked me to walk, then run. He measured all of the data coming out of the monitors, including my heart rate and breathing and my brain functioning.
    Then he let me cool down and have a drink of water, and after I’d rested a few minutes he drew more blood, and took a urine sample. He pricked my finger and checked my blood sugar levels. That was the first thing he noticed right away that was strange.
    “Here, I need you to eat something right now,” he said urgently. He practically ran out of the room and brought me back a sandwich, two cookies, two small cups of juice, a cup of milk, a cup of coffee, a piece of fruit, and some soup. Normally I wouldn’t accept that big of a meal for nothing, but for some reason, like always, I was hungrier than I could explain.
    I ate everything, gulping it all down in big bites, and he kept pausing my eating in order to prick my finger again and take another reading.
    “Hmm,” he kept saying. “Hmmmmm.” Sometimes, “Huh,” and “Well, emm.” I wondered what all of his little grunts and sighs meant but was honestly too scared to ask.
    “While I wait on some of the results, I’d like to send you in for some scans of your body. It should show any structural problems with your organs,” he said after I’d finished eating. “Normally we wouldn’t do that right after you’d eaten, but it was drastically important that you eat right then.”
    “How drastically?”
    “As in, you could have collapsed during the endurance tests. I should have checked you before. Are you diabetic?”
    “No, why?”
    “Nothing. I didn’t think so, I just wanted to be sure. Something’s going on for sure. Come on, let’s get you prepped for the scans.”
    He gave me a pair of socks and led me down the hallway to a waiting room. “Here,” he said, “just wait here. Someone will come get you in a few minutes.”
    I sat and played with my fingers until a doctor came to get me. “Here for a scan huh?”
    “You ever had one of these before?”
    “No. I don’t think so.” I shook my head.
    “Well, I see you’ve already got an IV line in, which is good. We’re going to give you some special medicine to light up your insides for the scan. Come, follow me.” He led me into a room with a giant round machine that had what looked like a skinny bed sticking out of it. “My name is Doctor Andra Carljen -- yes Andra like the Region.”
    I hadn’t said it but I’d thought it. He must get that question a lot.
    “I want you to lay down here on this table and just relax,” he said, patting the bed thing in the machine.
    I stretched out on it and he hooked up the IV in my arm to a machine that had tubes of fluid attached to it.
    “I’m going to push these into your IV and you’re going to feel a little weird. You might feel like your lower half is getting warm or wet -- that’s normal. Just relax and stay still okay? The scan will be over in just a few minutes.”
    “Alright…” I laid there and he pulled a sheet up over me.
    “It can get cold in here,” he explained. The doctor pushed a button on the IV machine and I could feel a cold wash of fluid rush into my veins. And then like he’d predicted, my legs and bottom felt warm and wet, even though I knew they were neither.
    The big circular machine started moving the bed into itself, inch by inch. Each time it pulled the bed in a little closer, it made a whirring clicking noise, and then did it all over again. I felt like it took longer than just a few minutes. My back was getting sore from laying there flat like I was, not moving. I wanted to raising my knees and stretch. But I stayed still.
    Eventually it was over and Doctor Carljen removed the IV line from my arm. “You can sit up now. The computer will process the images and we’ll have some results in just a minute.”
    I sat up and smoothed out the hospital gown and sheet.
  • “So, are you from around here?”
    “I live in Shimla Mirch,” I said, “but I was born on Groddle Isle, by the beach. I don’t really remember it though. My whole life I’ve lived in the firebogs. I love it here.” I hated small talk and basic conversation. I never felt like I did it correctly.
    “Despite my name, I actually don’t like Andra at all,” he said, still making small talk, “Originally I’m from Kajuu, but obviously I live here in Jethimadh now, to work.”
    “Ah.” I see?, I thought. What’s the proper response to this? I was floundering. He didn’t seem to notice, or if he noticed, didn’t mind or care.
    “Some people find Kajuu too rocky, but not me, I love the rocks.”
    Ah! Now I could relate to something. “You want rocky, you should go through Vantalu,” I said. “It’s peaceful and quiet, and all rocks and cherry trees.”
    “Yeah, I love Vantalu. You ever go hiking there?”
    “After a fashion.”
    “What’s that mean?”
    “Like, ‘in a way’.”
    “No I mean, what’s the way? Did you hike or do something else?”
    “Well it’s a long story but I got stuck in Nottis last year and had to hike down to Bortola to get to a subway so I could get home. On the way, we hiked through Vantalu. Well, and a lot of other regions.”
    “That must have been a long hike!”
    “Yeah, it was.” And suddenly we were back at that weird point in a conversation where the conversational thread was gone and a silence fell between us. But he was quick to fill it.
    “Well, let’s go see what the imaging’s showed up,” he said, and let me follow him into the side room where the computer screen was lit up with images of the inside of my body. It was eerie looking at them.
    He pointed at various places as he talked about the results. “You have some shrinking in your kidneys and liver and heart. I don’t know what might be causing that, but the walls of your organs seem thinner than they ought to be. I’m going to have to refer you to a specialist about this. In the meantime, eat a diet rich in iron and meat with bones. Eat a lot of calcium. I mean, not just milk and cheese but a lot of greens and nuts and seeds. It won’t fix this, but it should prevent this from worsening. Until we know what’s causing it though, we won’t be able to fix it. Do you understand?”
    I didn’t really, but I nodded. “Vegetables, meat, iron. Got it doc.”
    He sighed. He could tell I had only absorbed one tenth of what he’d told me, but he also obviously didn’t feel it was his job to repeat it.
    He wrote down the name and address and phone number of a specialist on a card and gave it to me. “I want you to go see them immediately,” he said, “like tomorrow if you can get in. Just go in and,” he handed me a copy of the images he’d just taken, “give them these. They’ll know what to do.”
    I could almost hear an “I hope” at the end of his sentence.
    “Thanks Dr Carljen,” I said.
    When I made my way back to Argon, I relayed what I’d learned and he frowned. “Well, while you were in doing that, I found something in your blood.”
    “Something…? Like what?” I was already on-edge from what the doctor had told me, but now doubly so.
    “It is indeed a virus, and your viral payload - that is, how much of it is in your system - is off the charts. We need to find a way to cut down on that viral payload or you’re going to very quickly go the way of Emro and Nane.”
    I swallowed hard. He continued, “More than that, if this is going on with you, I can only imagine it’s also going on with the rest of the people who were kidnapped. We’re going to need to round them all up and test every one of them, and, if we can, treat them with a harsh and steady course of anti-virals.”

  • As I was getting dressed to go home, I could hear chatter in the hallway. I poked my head out from behind the changing room curtain and saw a mass of people all lined up in the hallway, some of them already in hospital gowns. It was everybody from the Facility, even the ones who hadn’t been coming to the support groups.
    Argon had enlisted the help of Nick, and both of them were walking back and forth quickly down the line, talking to people, reassuring them, and taking blood samples and sending some of them off to collect urine samples.
    I finished dressing and then went and tapped Nick on the shoulder. He turned around and his face looked so tired I wanted to cry.
    “Nick! How long have you been here?”
    “I just got in a little while ago. Did Argon tell you what’s going on?”
    “Something about anti-virals?”
    “Yeah, we’re going to dose you all with a heavy course of anti-viral therapy and see if it slows the progression of your illness. You should change back into your hospital gown; you’re going to be here for a few days at least.”
    “A few days? I thought I was going home!”
    “No. And you better call Lumilda. We’re keeping all of you guys here. She’ll probably want to stay with you.”
    “Yeah, she will. I’ll give her a call.” I rushed down the hall to a phone and rang her. I let her know the situation, and then I went and sat in a waiting room as doctors and nurses rushed around finding everyone beds and blankets and pillows. I felt cold, and hungry.
    Lumilda came a little while after that, with a box of street food -- some of my favourites -- and she sat with me while I ate and we talked about what was going on. I was scared, but if anyone could take care of a problem like this, it was Argon and Nick. I trusted those guys with my life.

    It took three weeks in the hospital with round-the-clock infusions of anti-viral therapies before we all started seeing a change for the better.
    Unfortunately, Julian - the black-haired guy with long legs like stilts -- didn’t make it. He died a week and a half into treatment. But the rest of us made it through ok, at least all of the ones who had come to the hospital. There were a few of the people who’d been rescued that we weren’t able to track down. We didn’t have last names or phone numbers or addresses on some of them; some of them were homeless; some had moved and changed their names to put everything behind themselves.
    But as for me and my friends: We survived.
    And while I was in the hospital fighting for my life, in between teaching classes at the University, Lumilda was out tracking the disappearances, trying to find a pattern that would point to the location of another facility. I still wanted desperately to believe it was all a coincidence; that the disappearances were due to some other thing, and not the resurgence of kidnappings for experimentation.

  • But eventually she found a rock-solid link, and I could no longer deny the evidence. Lumilda even called Arvid and Lucas down from Nottis to come join us, to try to crack open this new kidnapping ring. Tick dropped what he was doing and joined us. The Moderators were involved, but distant; they played their cards close to the chest, as it were, and we never knew if they had all the information we had, or more, or less. Or any at all. All they would say is “we’re working on it,” and “be patient,” and “if there’s something going on, we’d know about it.” Those three lines were exhausting to hear over and over again.
    Lumilda tracked the kidnappings to Haoma. That was at the center of where everyone had been taken. You could draw a circle on a map, made of dots of all of the recent disappearances, and there at the center was Haoma. And in fact, that was exactly what she did.
    Haoma: the Forest Region. Lumilda, being Lumilda, had read all about Haoma in her studies. She knew more than probably anybody about the region, even people who lived there. Rumor held that in the entire region, there weren’t even vendors. There weren’t shrines either. It was just one massive forest that stretched on for an unfathomable distance both upwards and out in all directions. People who lived there, lived up in the canopy of the trees, hidden from view from the bottom. Even animals didn’t venture into it. The trees there were tall and strange, and were grown through with wild fungi as big as houses. The only way to get to the top or bottom was to climb; the only way in or out of the region was to be fortunate enough to climb past a street entrance, and all of the entrances were hidden behind thick bark and outcroppings of mushrooms. Giant, sagging mushrooms.
    I had to admit, it was a perfect place for a private lair: remote, hardly explored, full of dense forest and few people. Not many people would venture out there for fun, unless they were explorers like myself and my friends, and we weren’t exactly in peak condition for exploring yet.
    But Argon and Nick were getting us there, slowly but surely.
    It was only a matter of time.
  • Somewhere in Ur, there was a woman staring out a window.
    “And we’re ready to begin Phase 2?”
    “No more screw-ups like last time.” Her voice was angry, and she didn’t turn from the window.
    “No more screw-ups ma’am.”
    “What have I told you about that word?”
    “Sorry ma--- I mean, sir. Sorry sir.”
    “Sir is powerful. Ma’am is--”
    “A holdover from a time in which men held power over women, I know, I’m sorry sir. I won’t do it again.”
    “Right, see that you don’t.”
    “Should I prepare the acquisition…?”
    “Yes. And brief me when we have all one hundred. This time, we won’t lose our test subjects. All that data that was wasted when ‘George’ freed our subjects. She had no idea how much work was lost! That represented almost a decade of my time and energy.”
    “I know sir. We’re still working on getting copies of her records so we have at least something, as with the other patients.”
    “Fine, keep working on it.”
    Melanie turned from the window and looked the lab assistant straight in the eye. “You know what will happen to your family if you don’t work hard for me, don’t you Kim?”
    The man broke out in a cold sweat and his eyes teared up.
    “Yes sir, I know.”
    “Good. Let’s not have to have this conversation again shall we?”
    “No sir.”
    “Fine. Goodbye for now. Close the door on your way out.”
    Melanie turned back to the window, and looked down at Ur. She smiled.
    It was only just beginning.

    ((( The end...... "or is it?" )))
  • Notes:

    Miso and Lumilda spent time petting the piggies and chickens in the Shimla Mirch Herb Gardens after the picnic. Since Tick has been visiting all the friends, his lizard has been keeping the butterflies company in Miso’s basement.

    Laurelie and Everfawn are just friends.

    Laurelie works with patients at the Jethimadh Hospital outpatient unit, helping patients with rehabilitation. Everfawn (The Great and Wise) reads their fortunes for free, and gives life advice to struggling single mothers.

    Nick stole the colouring books that Miso had been working on and gave them to his daughter Jaylee. He took them with them when they left the Facility. Jaylee’s favourite pictures are the ones that Miso half-coloured and then got bored with; she’s tried to finish the pictures to look like what Miso had been working on before he stopped. Miso doesn’t know about this.

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