Curiosity, Discovery, Conspiracy
rating: +3+x

The low groan steadily rose into a sad and agonizing wail. It was loud enough that if it weren't for the fact that the local wildlife was gone, it would have gotten them killed.

"Just go and leave me alone, Caduceus." Victor nobly pleaded, taking hold of Caduceus' hand firmly.

"Don't you fucking dare, Victor. We're just a little ways far from the exfiltration zone. You can make this. "

Strate was up to his knees in rhinoceros feces, and it was soaking through his brown cargo shorts, which were one size larger than his actual. He wished he had shaved his legs. Immersed in the excrement, each hair was so sensitive that it felt every undigested nugget of matter it touched with terrifying detail.

His lips quivered as he spoke. "I hate shit."

Caduceus made a face. "You think you I don't?"

Strate seemed to be oblivious of the fact that he and Caduceus were suffering in the literal shithole together, and pressed on.

"Sometimes I hate going on missions."

"It keeps our wallets from going bottoms-up. You'd think Beta-class R&D would shoulder at least a fraction of your extra-curricular research, but noooo, they expect you to fund your own study into genetically-created nubile catgirls."

It was Victor's turn to make a face. "I didn't know you were into that, Cad."

"I am not." Martin shook his head jadedly. "But the dark powers will it."

"Oh, right." Victor said, leaning a bit forward as the excreta in front of him became much heavier. "You're a Satanist. That's unusually unorthodox of them, but it figures that they might do it for the publiCITY!" His left foot sank into an airhole in the shitsand, pulling him down to his waist. Caduceus pulled him back up with some difficulty, ignoring the fresh tears silently running down Victor's face.

"Not a Satanist either." Caduceus said. "Know what, religion isn't even a fucking factor, Vic."

Strate nodded, maintaining some composure.

Caduceus said hesitantly. "I'm under… special orders."

Victor made a 'pffft' sound and almost tripped in the mud again. "Really? You're Beta-One. Everybody there from Delta-Five's got a tiny little tendril running from the Giant Octopus in the sky, feeding them some extra-specialized directive that makes them feel so unique and empowered, not knowing that almost everyone around them that isn't a fanatical terrorist has one, too."

Caduceus shook his head. "You don't understand."

When Caduceus caught Strate turning to face him, he saw that the doctor's thick beard was flecked with brown slop. Not shit. More likely the marijuana substitute they had been using to relieve the pain after forty-eight hours of traversing the East African landscape.

Strate spoke with suppressed lividity. "Oh really? I don't understand why one of the Great Good Alphas in the Sky want to engineer a fucking race of cat-girls?"

"Strate."

"Cat-girls, Caduceus? Cat-women? You don't think I'd understand what your secret side-lords would want with that? We're Chaos Insurgent, god-fucking-damnit! What do you think they'd fucking do with a bunch of nude, subservient, only superficially-feline human slaves around?"

"Strate."

"I have been working in the Research department since Halsey still hadn't learned how to snap his fingers and sing show-tunes. I've held a gun against the heads of more than a hundred people and weaponized Terrorbite before we even had a full reproductive profile, and you try telling that news kindly to the citizens of Los Andares! I've personally committed all but two of the items on the Geneva Convention's list of war crimes, and that's only because Crayfish asked me to stop before I could read enough of the Greek travel book to instruct the small, fidget-spinning child on how to use a squad automatic weapon. You don't think I have half a mind to think about what they'd do to a bunch of cat-slaves?"

"Strate, listen."

"They're going to fuck them, of fucking course!"

"Strate!"


Victor awoke lying on a bed of sweet-smelling dried grass and, oh god, what was that warm slop he could feel under his back?

"Shit!" He screamed. "Everything I touch is shit! I've become the fucking Staff of Hemorrhoids!"

Victor tried to sit up, only to stop mere inches from Caduceus' disheveled face. There was a very unnerving second of eye contact as the two suddenly forgot what they were trying to do. Martin ended it by giving him a good one across the cheek.

"Jesus Christ, Strate." Martin sighed, as he scooped up some brown slop and applied it dutifully to Victor's leg wounds. "Fucking shut up. I need you stable if we're going to get through this last zone in one piece."

"Wait, what just happened?"

"You were mumbling in your sleep about fucking catgirls. I was letting it slide until you started to reach into your pants."

"So, so… the pool of shit wasn't real?"

Martin was quiet for a moment. Then he shook his head. "No, Strate. It was all a dream."

"B-but, but…" Strate whimpered. "You're spreading shit on me."

Martin made a very disgusted groan. "It's from anomalous cannabis. We used to smoke this sh- stuff. It disinfects your skin and helps the scabs heal quicker. Just lie back down. I've just put some sedative on you."

Strate felt a slithering thing come up to behind his neck. Something pierced inside.

"No, Cad, no…, wait a minute…" He said, suddenly feeling very sleepy.

"You never smoked… Weed… at… all…" This proved to be his last words before his eyes took in one last second of light.

It was dawn.


When Victor awoke again, the sun's position in the sky was twice the height of the big boulder on the horizon, and the world was getting brighter with each minute.

He stretched his arms, realizing they didn't ache anymore. The good doctor did great work! He stretched again, closing his eyes to yawn, and when he could see again, the world became just as dark as the horrific memories from last night.

Strate had a brief panic attack before Caduceus came into view and shushed him. "Get a hold of yourself, man. Be quiet. Be quiet." He intrusively slid a sticky berry mint into Strate's mouth. "We're still in hostile territory."

It didn't take long for Victor to become fully sober and realize what was going on.

They were in Eastern Africa to monitor wild herds of winged centaurs, or what resembled the "Buraq" in Islamic folklore. As they confirmed their report, stinger sites identified as belonging to Daesh destroyed their vehicle and they've been on the run for the past two days, running past a lone Foundation patrol and a line of Coalition sentries along the way.

Caduceus has saved his life after being caught by a Coalition droid. If he hadn't called down Quasi in time to fry the sentry's cybernetics, they would've been killed. Caduceus even took a shot for him.

He remembered saving Cad himself from a pack of wild African dogs. He knew after escaping, with some pride, that keeping the maimed femur of their escort chained to his belt had merit.

Martin must have noticed Strate coming to his senses, and lit him a cigarette.

"But you don't smoke, man." He said.

Martin gave a friendly shrug. "You do. Take a drag. It's been an hour since you dozed off. There was a local civilian chopper that got on to us just as you fell asleep, so I had to drag you a quarter-mile east to the nearby jungle. We don't have a lot of provisions left but I need you to be alert. Lotus has a S&R team waiting to airlift us to Cairo by dawn."

Caduceus helped Strate up and they proceeded to strap their bags in place on their back. They walked quietly across the rice fields in the pale moonlight.

"Martin." Strate said.

"Yep?"

"You don't mind if we talk, do you?"

Martin raised an eyebrow. "Um, no. Pretty sure no one could hear us if we talk this low."

"Okay, alright then." Victor said, momentarily fidgeting with the watch on his wrist.

"What is it?" Cad asked.

Victor felt pretty sure he knew what to ask when he started the conversation, but now he wasn't so sure. Regardless, he found the compulsion to begin.

He harrumphed out of politeness, then spoke. "The last mission we were on together was 1108. While I understand that people change a lot after four years, I can't help but feel like I never really got to know you back in the day."

Martin cocked his head in the same serpentine fashion that Strate always noted him for, whenever he was asked something unusual.

"How so?"

Victor felt a guarded timbre to Martin's tone.

"Well… Of course we were friends. And you were a good one to me, no doubt about that." Strate had a thought about Gucci then, and carried on. "We didn't ever talk over drinks or during downtime by ourselves, though. Not like you and Halsey, or Lewis. So I've got some stuff on my mind I've been meaning to ask you."

Martin chuckled quietly. "Shit, Victor, might've just been the thing about distance for us new Deltas back then. Go ahead."

"Ah, yes, I agree."

For a while, the two walked in silence as Victor built up momentum for the conversation.

"What's up with your codename?"

Victor's question was enunciated with as much diplomatic finesse as he could muster in six syllables.

Martin snorted. "Caduceus? I'm a doctor, I guess? I work with medicine? I was recruited inside a hospital, too. After doing that terrible shit to the resident physician…"

"Doctor Lorrie, I recall?"

"Yes."

Victor nodded, but another idea came into his mind. "Then why are you officially listed as a psychoanalyst, even when you're technically a surgeon? Why did they send you to interview Hime Akumu when you hadn't been certified in Psych yet then?"

He knew the question struck a chord with Martin, whose eyes had widened by a tiny fraction. He continued.

"That's a story for a different day… Just why are you in Psychiatry…"

"You know about my immunity to mind-affecting anomalies, right?" Martin said, as careful with his words as Strate.

"Yes…"

Victor was silent for half a minute. He was telling time correctly because the analog watch on his wrist made a very audible tick in the wilderness' silence.

"… come to think of it, Cad, I've never actually had any proof that you're psionically immune."

"What makes you say that?"

Martin's voice had plummeted into a much colder tone.

Victor needed to choose his words carefully from now on. He was pretty sure that Caduceus had exhausted his supply of disposable scalpels after killing the berserk elephant yesterday, but he wanted to play safe. After all, Martin was still his friend.

"You had exposure to the Bell of Entropy, yes?" He said.

"Yes." Came the reply.

"That was supposedly the first instance where your ability manifested, when every Delta with you and even the control team instantaneously converted into Harbingers right after the first test in a new location."

"You've been doing research." Martin said, his voice very low.

Strate continued. "The pathology of the conversion was connected to the sudden growth of a Toxoplasmosis variant in every listeners' brains, after sampling from live and dead subjects. You were among the sampled batch. Did you know that you tested positive?"

In the pitch-black surroundings, Martin's expression seemed to darken more.

"It was kept secret from my immediate superior and everyone else. I knew, of course."

Victor nodded.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

Victor stared off into the distance as he spoke again. "Let's talk about the Sporal Contagion. The Laertes strain, the one that got you infected. Laertes was a highly mutated strain, bred for its potential at psionic amplification. Basically shrooms that turned you into a Terran Ghost. You weren't affected."

"As I'm not supposed to be. Laertes' psychotronic properties were negated by my condition."

"But do you know how the fungus' magic works?" Victor asked rhetorically. "The fungus has a stage where it'd infect blood cells, directing them to create an organelle designed for psionic integration. Essentially a virus. That virus is what makes the psi. We tried this ourselves at my lab, turning a sample of infected cells into a drug. It worked."

Martin's expression was very tightly wound at this point. He was staring downwards as they walked.

"And until now, I've just been talking about the evidence towards the inverse. Do you remember mixing the chemicals for 1108? You had a problem in the lab. I walked in, and I saw just a speck of dimethylmercury on your exposed palm for a split-second before you washed it off. I reported it to the Well-Being center but you never apparently died even if it was a lethal exposure."

It was very silent after that. They had been walking for a while. By Victor's estimate, they could reach the exfiltration zone an hour before dawn. Maybe even two, if he wasn't trying to slow Martin's pace down.

"What's the reason you don't smoke? Or hit the pipe? Is it 'cause you don't wanna get wasted? Why? I know your condensed biography mentioned "immunity to mind-affecting anomalies" but the official report suggested you were also supposed to be psychologically stable against any form of mind-altering substance. Even mundane ones."

"You're toeing classified information, Strate."

Victor's eyes had gotten cloudy in his wide-eyed conspiratorial state. He wiped his hands on his fatigues and brushed each eye dry.

"Now, I'd want to think that I've said enough to say what I've been thinking…" He trailed off for a while. The moon had rose to its appreciable zenith. The night sky was a beautiful landscape of its own, adorned with a halo around the white satellite. "But there is one thing that tied it all together…"

The atmosphere around his companion changed then. Victor noticed that the air was very still.

He continued. "When your interview with Hime took place… The girl was having the flu."

Victor trailed off again, his tone suggesting that Martin should respond. Martin nodded silently.

"She sneezed right at you, didn't she?"

"Yes."

"And you didn't get sick."

"No."

"Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"

Martin crossed his arms over his chest, hugging himself warm from the chill, and shrugged. "That my biography is falsified?"

Victor nodded in affirmation. "That you're not actually immune to psionics. You're immune to disease." Upon saying that, the air around them seemed to change, as if fresh air from some untapped chamber had come into their underground temple from a loose portion of the wall that was removed. He felt Martin's full attention on him.

"I got to hand it to you, Strate. You're as investigative as you were back during 1108." Martin said without any change to his expression. Carefully, he reached into his coat and removed something for Strate to see. His companion's eyes widened at the recognition of the object glinting in the full moonlight: a scalpel, worn with use and stained with something the color and texture of dried living matter.

For a brief moment Strate realized he had explicitly discussed classified details about his colleague in field conditions. There was nobody around them, but Strate knew that because Quaesitor was keeping an eye on Martin and fed him information on their surroundings, and if Quaesitor was listening, Montgomery was listening.

He has only a combat knife and three rounds in his standard-issue firearm left.

Martin held up the scalpel in front of Victor. "My first scalpel as an insurgent doctor." He paused to let his companion get a closer look. To say that blood was the only off-colored stain visible on the thing would be a terrible understatement. And that was merely on the handle; the blade no longer shone silver, but a very sickly copper.

He put the scalpel back into his pocket.

"Before I was recruited, I had them chasing me down. I had, after all, committed a brutality against one of their embedded agents. Third-degree murder, in very general terms. I'd like to say it was personal, but honestly, the way I remember it I wasn't in the right mind when the opportunity presented itself. As you've already learned, I'm not immune to mind-affecting properties. So I killed the doctor in a way that the Insurgency took a morbid interest to.

"The tactics with which they hunted me down the city isn't really relevant right now, up to the point that, out of realization that I might be more trouble than I'm worth, I guess, they gassed me.

"Their cocktail was an experimental mix concocted from four incredibly lethal and fast-acting pathogens, each anomalously augmented. It was supposed to turn me into something resembling a weeks-old decomposed corpse in ten seconds. They set up their toxin team at the alley that they knew I'd go into. I ran right into the first volley of the stuff. I even thought they were just hosing me down with water."

Martin side-stepped away from Strate to avoid the corpse of something small on the trail.

"When I was assessed for categorization, they found nothing else anomalous about me. That's why I'm just a positive-condition mundane recruit. I'm not Teal-potential, anyway."

It was Victor's turn to grunt in affirmation. "What was up with that scalpel, though?"

Martin grinned. "I don't think I can talk about that, now."

"Ah," Strate raised his eyebrows and faced away. "I understand."

"It's filthy for a reason. And I keep it with me for the same."

It was silence for a considerable portion of their journey. Victor had decided to leave Caduceus with some breathing room after his discovery. The moon was behind them now, and the landscape in front of them seemed alien in the celestial body's glow. Steadily, a clearing became more visible in the fields in front of them. It was their exfiltration zone.


They took turns sleeping. Cad volunteered for the first shift, but realizing that it was going to be dawn soon anyway, and Caduceus had spent a great part of the night administering to their wounds, Victor insisted on staying up the whole duration so that the doctor could get some sleep.

Sitting on a rock facing Caduceus, Victor decided on counting the stars to pass the time. He was really good at memorizing the constellations in high school astronomy, something that he and Halsey had shared a bond over while 'playing' Asteroids at Montgomery. Victor quietly dreamed to himself of becoming an Alpha and getting aboard their space station. He loved space.

Eventually, he started to nod off.

Just as he felt himself leaning onto the tree at his back, he seemed to have heard a strange voice coming from behind him. He turned around instinctively.

There was nothing there but the tree.

"I'm the one talking to you, my child. Greetings." The spirit of the tree said in a jovial tone. "You are not from here. What has led you and your friend to this place, so distant from the nearest of your kind?" There was such a stunned silence over the following seconds that the tree was forced to add, "No, you have not smoked anything. This is not a hallucination. I really am a tree talking to you."

"Greetings as well, Mister Tree. I'm Victor." He eventually said.

"Why are you here, child? You and your friend seemed awfully tired, so you must have come from far away. What purpose do you have travelling so late without camp?"

Victor's mind was not in the proper state to answer a mythical being as benevolent as a talking tree. Regardless, he had to come up with something quick.

"We are scouts. Two days ago we were sent to gather information of creatures we thought didn't exist, until we saw them with our own eyes. We had just been leaving when our elephant was destroyed." He winced at the choice of word. "Since we had been in the enemy's land, we had to escape quietly and with due haste. We had been braving many obstacles before we reached this place to rest and wait for our kingsmen to take us home."

Somehow, in some unknown way, Victor pictured the tree nodding at him.

"Interesting. What sort of creature is this?"

Victor then spent another considerable portion of the night telling the tree about how he got to where he was now, some excerpts of his life story, his belief and outlook on nature, and the adventures that he had with Martin and their friends.

Eventually they returned to talking about how difficult it had been for them for the past two days.

"Most grueling. Very well, then, stranger. This place is a zone of sanctuary, discovered by travellers long ago. It is a place guarded by the spirits of nature. You may sleep peacefully here. I shall charge the servants of this place to watch over you and your companion and wake you come dawn."

"Can you make that an hour after dawn?" Victor inquired.

"What is an hour?"

"Never mind."

And so, rather awkwardly, Victor set his bag under his head and laid to sleep by the rock, perpendicular to Caduceus.

Victor tried not to dream too much. His thoughts swam around.


The hallway was smeared with blood. He was a minute's pace away from the room farthest to the end; the only one with the lights still on. Every private quarter's door was ajar. The contents of each were a gruesome mess. Inside some, the bodies were laid on the floor for all to see. He worried for the occupant of the lit room.

He had just walked by the corpse of his old teammate from his old field unit. The body was holding a picture frame of a young girl. Her features were inhumanely pale, like porcelain.

The walls were also porcelain. And blood was everywhere. The closer he got to the room, the brighter the blood became. Noise of commotion from the room had become audible.

He was steps away from the room when he heard the pained screaming from within. It was a voice he recognized, even in the dreamlike haze that had punctuated everybody's mind since the incident had started. He could taste the blood in his mouth. There was so much blood he felt everywhere.

"Strate!"


He woke up at the first shout, this time.

"Strate!" Martin repeated. "Rise and shine, our ride's here!"

"Talking trees!" Victor blurted out. The part of his mind that processed language was still caught in a knot. "Blood. Staff of… Hemophilia!"

"Not making any sense here. How long were you asleep?"

Strate felt a slithering thing creep onto his neck and inject something. In an instant he felt more into it.

"What time is it?"

"Six thirty. Dawn was an hour ago. I woke up when this big branch came out of nowhere and fell on me." Caduceus said, still clearly annoyed by that fact.

Victor looked around, and saw the tree he might have apparently been having a conversation with last night.

The tree stood there looking like it was the epitome of the word, 'unassuming.'

A khaki-brown VTOL helicopter appeared out of thin air and landed in the middle of the clearing, unsettling some dust from the dirt circle. Two Shade operatives emerged to exfiltrate the two researchers. Once they were inside, a familiar face peered at them from the pilot's chamber.

"Gucci?" Martin said.

The apparition vanished after the cloud of dust from the chopper ascending caused him to blink. When he opened his eyes, all he saw was their pilot's non-descript and unfamiliar visage, glancing at them for a second. His partner, another person they didn't know, nodded in greeting and handed them refreshments.

From the view up in the sky, Victor cast one last look down at the tree. He'd like to think that it waved its branches at him as the aircraft flew out of sight.


"Cad?" Victor said, leaning on the balcony outside the Staff Well-Being Department's office.

"You probably got enough dirt on me to call me by my name, you know."

"About that… There's something else I wanted to ask you."

"What's that?"

"Why did they lie about your anomaly? And don't give me the whole spiel with disinformation. I'm above clearance to know."

"Because it is just disinformation."

"No, I don't believe that. If it was, they could have sent you on more interviews. More tests on mind-affecting Items. Hime's interview was just a showpiece with no psionic threat whatsoever, why didn't they follow it up? Why not put on some smoke and mirrors to make it seem that you're a nullist through and through?"

"Because one of the many likely possibilities of pushing that lie on me is that I'll get exposed to an actual mind-affecting Item that would compromise me and my capacity as a researcher and physician?"

"What makes you worth it?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your reasoning implies that the Insurgency has placed a high value on you. I can't say for certain, but you're personally crucial to someone up above."

"… You're getting a bit over your head here, Vic."

"Is that why, despite participating in the Falchion uprising, and diving head-first and without no any form of back-up at times, with minimal combat training and often dangerous objectives, you managed to survive right until Mark knocked you out and you were, by some luck, out of the war at its most intense phase?"

Caduceus suddenly became silent. His expression was closely guarded but somehow blank.

He broke into a grin. "Damn, how long were you trying to extract this information from me, anyway?"

He cleared his throat. "Well, Victor, I can't answer that, you know."

"But since you're pressing me, let me tell something about my codename. You're right about one thing: that it's got a bit more meaning to it."

Caduceus turned to face Victor. "Tell me some of the historical figures of the Insurgency that you know of."

Victor felt like this was an elementary question, and answered. "Well, there's Fillius, Tesla, Combington, Kreise. Doctor A.R. Hathie Tenebraum, Death Captain Rothschild."

"Do you know about Doctor A.R.?"

"Angus Remidi. Foundation defector during the Splinter. Stole a lot of Items during the initial chaos, and orchestrated attacks to liberate several more in the following years."

"In the years before his disappearance, he became restless. Traveled the world. His discoveries during that time period were all of a medicinal nature. Like Remedion. That was named after him."

"Yeah, I know."

"Do you think he was onto something, finding anomalies of health in his adventures?"

"Not that I can appreciably make an informed guess out of, no."

Victor looked at Caduceus. Caduceus gave off the impression of a man who was unused to revealing such details about himself to other people. He was sweating profusely.

They stood there on the balcony until dusk came, and the city below them came into night-mode. Victor eyed a Pizza Hut sign a block away, and felt his stomach rumbling for a pan pizza. Though he could not tell, Martin had the same thoughts, and they would end up having dinner with their friends there tonight.

Caduceus finally spoke up. "Do you think that the codename, 'Staff of Hermes,' is more of a figurative title than an actual description of that Item?"

"It turns things it touches into whatever the holder wants it to be. In a sense, it delivers the subject's desires to them in the blink of an eye. I guess the god of messengers and fast travel was a fitting theme for it."

Martin couldn't help but nod. "Huh. Yeah, that's a good observation. Pretty cool, poetically speaking."

It was clear that whatever revelation that Martin had been building to before was dropped. Right now, the doctor seemed to be tired of answering Victor's questions. That was understandable, since he had been asking them all day. Strate hit himself internally at his intrusiveness, took a deep breath, and looked at the skyline. The last time they saw the sunset was the day before, when they were picking spikeweeds off from their clothes.

The long body of a snake slithered next to Victor's right hand. Victor peered at what it was holding on its outstretched tongue, then exchanged a look with Cad, who simply gestured him to take the object from the snake.

Victor took the berry mint off the snake. It withdrew back to inside Caduceus' coat. After an initial minute of panicked decision, Victor coughed once, to catch Martin's attention, put the berry mint in his mouth, and started to chew the sticky candy slowly.

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