Date: June 14th, 2022
Location: L-1 Pathogenic Lab
Personnel: Dr. Joshua Seimar, R-Class-D; Dr. Evelyn Pearce, R-Class-D
"Good afternoon, Dr. Pearce. I've brought you a dead rat."
Now, this wasn't the usual sort of gift one brought when visiting a person, but Evelyn was hardly the usual sort of person. Well, Joshua had to suppose he wasn't either, at least not these days - or maybe not for a long while. It wasn't his first dead rat, after all.
He'd started out with the ones that got in the barns, or what was left of them after the cats were done toying with them. If he'd been lucky, there'd still be a good half rat left over. A boy could do a lot of things with half a rat, that was something certain. He'd learned a lot, poking around in rats back in the day. He supposed he could thank that for where he'd ended up now. And, sure, that was a bit of a questionable place to be, some would say - but it wasn't polite not to say thank you, and Joshua had been raised to be polite. You said please and thank you, you cleared your own plate without being told, and you brought a gift when you visited someone.
Hence, of course, the dead rat. It was in a sealed canister, because it was almost certainly carrying whatever had killed half the cultists at the GoI that the Locusts had raided that morning. They'd brought back a few of those as well, which meant he could study the progression of whatever this was, but cultists were more difficult to transport than dead rats.
He probably could have pieced a fair bit together on his own, but when it came to pathogens, Evelyn was definitely better at it than he was. Joshua's primary specialty was as a medical doctor, with a secondary in autopsies and anomalous fauna. He knew a great deal about rats, but the rat was not anomalous other than being the carrier of something that might have been an anomalous plague or might have just been a regular plague they'd started by blood sacrifice.
It had been quite a sloppy one, too, in his professional opinion, but they couldn't all have had the benefit of an L-9 education. Besides, mentioning that would not have been polite.
And there was hardly anyone to mention it to, at this point.
The buzzer went off, but Evelyn could barely hear it over the speakers. She noticed it, not by volume, but by timing- the harsh whine landing after the off-beat in the bridge, sticking out like a sore thumb, unlike the other harsh whines that landed after the off-beat in the bridge. It was a good thing she had heard this song before, as had everyone else in Vector. Most of them were absolutely sick of her shit by now. They were sick to fucking death of it, but the propensity to blast loud, incomprehensible music out of her office speakers at all hours of the day was, in all fairness, one of her weaker flaws. Besides, some of 'em liked it. She'd make converts out of them yet, just you wait.
With a laboured sigh, she dragged herself off the desk chair and flopped onto the microphone panel, slapping the 'on' button to deliver a crackly "Mmhm, gimme a sec." to whoever was at the door. She didn't bother checking who it was- she never did. Most of the time, it was Dr. Hobbes, coming round to chastise her about... well, neither of them knew what exactly. Vibes, perhaps. Attitude. Professionalism. 'Soft violations', she'd call them, referring to the fact that the only code Evelyn had technically violated was her own personal code of manners. Evelyn could get quite far on 'technically'. Maybe that was her problem.
Her office was located on the border, between the entrance and the individual quarantine areas, which meant she didn't have to try to use her computer with a hazmat suit. Paperwork was so much easier when you can hit one key at a time, rhatherr thjan hiuttingf therm allk atr onvce. She kept her mask on, of course. That was a rule around here- if you were caught without a mask, then you must not know why it's so important to wear one, and... well, there's no better teacher than experience! They usually put them on after she told them that. God forbid she actuslly had to follow through with it- Hobbes would have an absolute fucking field day if infection-as-punishment was actually on the table. For legal reasons, everything Evelyn threatens was to be taken as a joke. Most of the time, they were.
Most of the time.
She picked the stopwatch up from where it lay at her desk, wrapping the cord around her fingers. Always good to keep these things on you, eh? That one was actually part of the code- the real code: personnel are responsible for the safe use and safekeeping of any assigned anomalies. Evelyn was nothing if not responsible. 4912 was always in her hand, and 5810 was kept in a locked safe at her desk when not in use. The, uh, internal thing was a bit of a problem, but the task fell on the ACF to warn dimension-hoppers not to travel to the inescapable expanse of anomalously infected needles, not her, which was good.
The external door was locked, sealed, and kept behind three layers of airlock and sanitisation rooms, all of which had glass doors so people could see whether the person on the other side was worth the inconvenience or not. This guy, this weird guy with his weird box with a dead thing in it, seemed like the real deal. Evelyn loved weird things. Dead things, she could go either way with, but weird things? She worked her way through the layers and greeted him at the door.
"Aw, fuck's sake, couldn't have given me a live one?"
She pouted. Then, she smiled.
"Was it dead before you brought it, or did it die in the..."
Dr. Pearce played the grumbling researcher well, for a moment. Joshua had almost begun to wonder if she was really disappointed, before the lines around her eyes changed. Anyone who spent much time in a face mask had to learn how to tell a smile by the eyes.
He'd dressed for the occasion, of course, which meant surgical mask, surgical scrubs, and an extra pair of gloves tucked into a pocket along with cap and booties, just in case. Generally speaking, he was fairly confident that between himself and Cait they could kill just about anything, but it was good not to get infected in the first place. It took up time that could be better spent doing other things, after all.
"Died before it was all over, I'm afraid. It was alive when we got there. It could have been the disease that killed it, or Agent Corby was throwing around some hexes so it could have been that, or I suppose it could have been cardiac arrest, given the situation. I'll know once I open it up, of course, but I thought you might like to see it first."
The canister itself was clear, which meant the dead rat was visible. It wasn't the sort of rat that one found scurrying around in the alleys, it was a black-and-white fancy breed that had likely been someone's pet at some point. Rats could be very affectionate, after all, when they were alive. This one was a bit past affection, it seemed.
It was a rare treat that someone actually showed up wearing proper PPE and didn't have to borrow the Laboratory's personal supply. Evelyn decided to reward him by way of absence- the absence of threat, that was. Why, it was even neater than her own current attire, since she was out of formal quarantine. Forest green button-down, pristine labcoat, gloves, and black trousers tucked into combat boots. The mask and gloves were the only indicator of caution, and she'd admit she felt a little underdressed.
She examined the rat from a distance, squinting through the glass of the canister to get a closer look. It was... definitely a pet rat, that's for sure- not anything found in sewers, unless it got particularly lost one day.
"Aw, he's a cutie, isn't he?" She said, "Now, why would somebody infect a sweet little guy like you, hm?"
Evelyn shook her head- disappointed, perhaps.
"Whatever he caught, he likely caught it from humans- either some human disease got transmitted, or someone--something--did this on purpose. Now, given where you work from, Josh, I'm gonna start by assuming the latter."
Knowing the surface team, there were probably human victims- ah, rephrase- there were probably once-human victims. Talk of hexes implied it had a purpose, or was particularly virulent, to warrant such measures. There was news of them discovering something--she had heard it through some of her researchers--but she hadn't had time to sit down and read the report, if it had even been written yet. This seemed recent. Exciting. Uncharted territory.
She clapped her gloved hands together, turning on her heel.
"Basic sterilisation's through this way- leave the canister on that conveyor, it'll take it through to... whichever quarantine zone isn't currently infected by, like, Eye-fluenza."
Not her choice of name, that one.
"Fancy walking me through what you lot already know, or d'ya think it'll be more fun if I guess?"
"It's 'Joshua,' actually." He was polite about it, because that was important, but boundaries were also important, especially at L-9, and he'd hated the short-form Josh for as long as he could remember. Which, in ACF, did not necessarily mean anything - but Joshua's memories were remarkably intact, sans a few little spots that had been remanded for security purposes.
"And, ah, no, Dr. Pearce, I don't mind walking you through it at all. I didn't want to start in on it since some prefer to analyze first before the possibility of being influenced. So, ah, we were called out to Tennessee because a few of the folks out in the hills decided they were going to summon up a plague and bring on the new age apocalypse in the wake of the evils of modern medicine - standard spiel, really. Well, they did quite a number on themselves - I believe the intent was to go forth and bring it to the world, but by the time they'd infected themselves most of them were falling over, so they didn't get very far. This little fellow was in a cage, though it was a very nice cage. Pet cage, not lab cage."
The difference was really quite obvious, once you'd seen the two. Lab cages were sterile, with little in the way of stimulation other than what was required. Food was nutritious, the cage itself was clean. This one had been a bit messy, with a scattering of toys that had probably belonged to the previous rat - they didn't live long, after all - and the sort of food that looked like half of what someone else had been eating for breakfast.
"In any case, they weren't interested in negotiations with the Foundation, not that they really had much to stand on. Metaphorically. Also, physically, interesting enough. So, in the human subjects I've managed to autopsy, it seems to be turning the bones to a gelatinous substance - aspic, for lack of a better term. I don't know about whether it will be the same in rats, I haven't opened him up yet. We'd like to isolate the pathogen responsible and determine if it's a standard mutation or something anomalous."
Her tone was dismissive, but the little thumbs-up she gave seemed to show she wasn't. Joshua it was, then. Better make it worth the extra syllables. Work here was often so intense and rushed that half of Vector called her Ev by necessity, just so they could flag her down in time. Either that or Evy. Or boss. Or- nah, she couldn't use that word here. All this bloody censorship- there were some words that '[EXPLETIVE]' just couldn't replace, try as they might to 'fix' her write-ups. Didn't carry the same specificity.
"Mm-hm, mm-hm." She nodded along as he explained, "'Evils of modern medicine'- we get that a lot over here."
She did, at least. Perhaps Joshua did as well, although his team seemed more focused on the evils of the ancient arcane, which had a slightly nerdier ring to it- a bit Dungeons and Dragons.
"Anyway- you didn't tell me you had people infected by this thing! Any reason why you couldn't source a volunteer, or were they all-"
She let her arms and neck go limp for a second, flopping dramatically to finish her sentence.
"Do you? I've always found modern medicine to be very useful." Joshua would have thought that was a sentiment shared throughout the Foundation, especially given how many of them required medical treatment on a regular basis. He had a strong appreciation for historical medicine as well - that was what he'd earned his original doctorate for, after all - but Joshua was a firm believer in using whatever options were available, not discounting anything because it came from one philosophy or another.
Her impression of the patients was... well, to the point, he supposed. "Ah, we have some cadavers we were able to bring back, but what with the osteojellification they're not easy to transport properly and I thought it best not to risk the quality in order to bring one over. You'd be welcome to review the notes, of course, or even perform some of your own analytics. If you don't mind L-9, that is."
Many people did, in fact, mind L-9. It was a bit silly of them, Joshua had always thought, but then again not everyone could be particularly open-minded, and L-9 did require more open-mindedness than most. "The rat was much simpler to bring, and I thought you might appreciate an original subject."
"Useful and evil aren't mutually exclusive." Evelyn shrugged, "But I'm sure you'd know that. This is the ACF, after all- that's kinda our driving principle."
Oh, Hobbes would have a field day if she heard Evelyn say that- but it was true, in a way. She could count the number of teams without anything usefully-evil on one hand. She could count them on one hand with half her bloody fingers missing.
"Mm, cadavers aren't what I'm looking for here. I need to find out how this thing progresses, how long it takes, what exactly it does to cause that- what, osteojellification? Man, that's a fun one- I was just gonna call them jelletons."
That, and she didn't fancy going to L-9. She didn't trust their hygiene practices- they spent all day working with the unfathomable, and they didn't wash their hands after every single step? Do you know what kind of diseases they have in the Nightmare Layers? Evelyn did. Oh, Evelyn did. Her only experience with the department was the more-than-occasional patient being brought into quarantine- having L-9 weirdness on DoorDash was sufficient for her. At least, then, she could keep things clean.
"The rat's-" She sighed, "Look, I don't wanna insult your gift, but I couldn't give half a shit about the rat. I'm interested in what it's carrying. If I can get a sample of that, then you can go perform whatever autopsy you want on the bitch, whilst I go pick out a Class-A from the catalogue to run some tests on."
"Evil is a rather unscientific term," Joshua commented, "People often use it for things that they don't understand, or, oddly, for the process of understanding. Very strange." Sometimes, people did not care to learn about things. Of course, there was also the fact that sometimes, people should not learn about things, which was the premise upon which the ACF had been founded. A necessary good, as it were.
He handed over the canister, even if she didn't particularly want the rat. Joshua had a feeling that this was a case of polite refusal: oh, no, I don't need anything like that. It was comfortingly midwestern, the need to refute a gift before accepting it, whether or not one found it interesting.
It would have also been comfortingly midwestern to respond to her suggestion that he watch with oh, no, I couldn't possibly, but the majority of Foundation personnel weren't fluent in that convoluted language, and would assume the refusal was serious and not an invitation to ask again. Joshua had needed to learn a few things about phrasing, when he'd first joined.
"Actually, if you don't mind, I would quite like to watch. I believe it's important to learn new things, and my area of expertise doesn't cover pathogens as well as I would like."
Of course, this lead in to the hope that she wasn't also speaking Midwestern, which would have meant that the offer wasn't actually an offer but an indication that she wanted to do this herself. It was much easier, Joshua thought, when one could tell that they were speaking different languages. German or French or demonic babble - but that was not to be had here. Perhaps the pathogens had a language all of their own.
"If it helps - which it assuredly does not - my team has been referring to the pathogen as jelly-rabies."
He'd rather liked jelleton, when she'd brought it up. It was unscientific, but it also got the point across very quickly. There was something to be said for clear and concise communication, after all.
"Ooh, fun thought." She smiled, "I'll tell that one to the ethics board, I reckon."
She wondered, for a moment, what kind of useful-unknowable-evil Joshua got up to in his spare time. It sounded like he spoke from experience with that sort of thing- something which wouldn't surprise her if it turned out to be true. There were a lot of folk like that, especially here.
Evelyn took the canister and sent it into the laboratory, stepping to the side to put on a standard-issue ACF hazmat suit- the kind with the awful ventilation, the stupid thick gloves that never fit her hands right, and the stupid visor which fogged up with disinfectant and took ages to clear. When were the brainiacs at Product Development going to come up with a better design for these things? No wonder her staff were so hesitant to put them on.
Once suitably protected, she gave Joshua a thumbs up and opened the door to the lab, making sure it was properly closed once they were both inside.
"Sample retrieval shouldn't take long- just need some tissue." She said, carefully opening the canister, "I reckon I should take more bone marrow than usual, considering the, uh... ease of access."
It was a good thing it was easy to access. Evelyn didn't fancy fumbling around with drills in this suit.
Joshua took his time about suiting up properly as well, or at least as properly as one could get in the standardized hazmat gear. It would have been nice if the Foundation had the same fitting system that they did for the armor they used for agents and surface teams, but in a hazmat-research variant, but he supposed the wait times on things were already exorbitant, and this worked well enough. Also, he hardly wanted to be exposed again. They'd had to do the full five-point bloodletting sacrificial anticontaminant hex to make sure none of them were infected with this, and while it was always a point of personal pride to see it actually working the way he'd theorized it would all those years ago, it still wasn't a pleasant process from the inside.
He sure supposed it was still preferable to becoming a jelleton, though. Joshua checked the seals one more time just to make sure, then followed Dr. Pearce through the lock.
"Let me know if you need an extra hand," he offered, politely, "But otherwise I'll do my best to stay out of your way." He'd brought this one here for her to examine, after all, and the last thing any researcher needed was to have someone standing there at their elbow saying hey, how about this? did you think of trying that? you should really...
Joshua liked collaboration as much as anyone, some folks just had a little bit to learn about how to collaborate properly.
She gave him another clumsy thumbs-up when he put the suit on properly. Finally, a guest with experience- most people, she's have to practically force into the damn things, or at least stand there and give a step-by-step tutorial on how to properly, safely put one on.
Once they were both in the room, and the door was locked, she made her way over to a table and opened the canister, placing the rat down in front of her and reaching for her tools.
"The latter," She said, "If you don't mind- hard enough trying to work in these damn suits without someone crawling up your arse trying to tell you to put this thing here, that thing there, don't cut through that artery- you know how it is."
Skin samples were easy enough to obtain- scraping back the fur and removing a small square like it was the peel of a particularly rotten orange. Blood was a little trickier, given that it was stagnant, but there was enough inside the little bastard that she coild comfortably fill a vial. Muscle tissue was next- she cut close to the surface for the first sample, but seemed to change her mind as she was putting it away.
"Gonna have to get a second chunk of that. She explained, "Close to the bone. Got a theory I wanna test."
She cut deeper, removing a sample from further within the rat, and compared it visually with the sample she had taken earlier.
"Completely understood," Joshua stated, in the tone of someone who had been there before and took absolutely no offense. Indeed, most of the time lately he'd been working with Cait as an assistant, and while she was certainly exceptionally talented in her chosen field, she was also incapable of being quiet for more than about five minutes at a time unless she was getting into trouble, which she often was.
She'd wanted to try resurrecting the rat. Fortunately, he'd been able to lay claim to it for medical science of the non-occult variety, before anyone else happened to decide "it would be fun." Including, for example, the Councilman, who was no better than the rest of them.
Joshua also thought it would be fun, but sometimes research had to come first. He'd offered to let Cait try a frog this weekend. He'd learned a lot as a young man poking around with dead frogs and dead rats, so it always made him smile to see someone share in the same joy. They'd see how that went, with the frog.
For now, the rat, which Dr. Pearce was poking around inside while Joshua helpfully stood out of the way, watching her work and not offering suggestions, since she was well regarded in her field as being excellent at her job when not being pestered by questions from personnel from other locations.
The last statement invited comment, though, and he focused his attention on the doctor for a moment rather than the rat - not that there was much to look at on that front, given the shapeless hazmat gear. "Oh? Interesting, what are you looking for?"
The name was a slip-up; a mistake, caused by her focus on the task at hand. She felt like she was disarming a bomb, though there was usually no need to be this careful when retrieving a sample. Perhaps it was the hazmat suit, or perhaps it was the tension of finding evidence, but Evelyn was being extremely careful here. Then again, she was always careful. Though her tongue was loose as all hell, her hands were like little machines- controlled and factory-precise. She cut deeper into the muscle, straight and careful.
Then, like some nightmarish facsimile of a children's educational TV personality, she raised her hand and snapped her fingers.
"That's right! You take a bunch of bones and you boil them!"
She nodded once, as if agreeing with her own statement.
"What I'm looking for are signs of heat damage close to the bone. The external sample seems quite rare, so I'm assuming any abnormal temperatures would be localised around the bones, so I need to take another sample from there and compare the two- to see if this one's more well-done."
A smile crossed her face, though it was barely visible through the suit's visor. Given what it represented, that was likely a good thing.
"Now, what I'd need to determine next is timeframe. The process of gelatinisation usually takes quite a while; you could have your bones simmering away in that pot for hours, and all you'd get is a stink in your kitchen and a vat of murky water on your stove. I believe it usually takes around six to eight, if you're doing it the normal way."
She glanced over to Joshua, dropping the sample into its container.
"Something tells me this cult ain't doing it the normal way."
In Joshua's experience, jelly was generally made from fruit and pectin, not bones. That would be a gelatin, or, really, an aspic. He wondered if Dr. Pearce was oversimplifying things, or if she just didn't know her way around the kitchen and had learned her culinary facts from the internet.
He'd never been much of a cook himself - too much time poking around inside dead rats, really - but he'd come from the sort of rural place where people made do, and he'd picked up a bit of knowledge here and there. Truthfully, he knew his way around the kitchen better than most of his team, but this was not so great an accomplishment as one might think. Brian was the worst - if someone didn't point him in the direction of food a few times a day, he forgot it existed. Gail could cook, but rarely wanted to, and if she wanted to it was always the sort of thing that had three hundred steps and took forty-eight hours. She did not do simple. Joshua didn't think she was capable of it. Nic had promise. He could bake, at least, which was something.
And Cait... well, they tried not to let her in the kitchen. She oscillated between trying to make things 'more interesting' and crying over the calamari. Admittedly she had been fifteen at the time of the incident, but he doubted that she'd improved.
But on the much more relevant subject of dead rats, he watched Dr. Pearce's technique and stayed out of the way, listening to her theories and giving her a nod at the end. "Ah, no. They were certainly not doing things the normal way."