I need to get out of this place I've been staying. Belle is dead, and my patient, Nora, is in bad shape. I need to get her to a real hospital, with real medicine, if there's any hope that we can harness the information that she's producing with the bdelloids. If there's any hope that we can save her. Tell me where you are, and I will find a way to get there.

After my conversation with Bea, I went home to find Nora on the floor, convulsing. This was nothing new, PTA tries to overtake your spinal chord and nervous system on its way to your brain, and since her experience was basically PTA in slow motion, she had been prone to spasms and full blown seizures at this point. Her existence was misery, and we both knew it, but she was determined to survive, and I was determined to find a way to make that happen. By the time I had geared up to go in her small, ventilated living space, the violence had ended. There she lay, in a crumpled heap, her eyes barely open. Exhaustion. I knelt in front of her and placed my gloved hand on her shoulder. She smiled, weakly. I knew it was not enough, a gloved, impersonal hand groping her bare arm, but for that moment, it sufficed to keep her trying. I gave a sympathetic smile and moved to put my hands under her thin arms and lift er up and onto the small, ugly couch that I had found at the dump, which she now used for a bed. I sat her down, and took my place beside her. We must have been a sight to see--if there had been anyone around to see us. A fully dressed, suited HVAC monster, complete with welders' gloves and breathing apparatus, aside a tiny, shriveled, black and blue wisp of a thing, nearly all her hair fallen out and her eyes sunken in... the epitome of juxtaposition.
I rested my arms on my thighs and said, "You're getting worse."
"Every day," she joked between whistling breaths, "What else is new?" she rested her head on my shoulder and let her eyelids drift shut.
"How did you manage to get both? The bdelloids and PTA I mean. What happened? Where did you come from?"
"I don't want to talk about it," She answered with a little more spunk in her weak voice, "I told you that already."
"YEah, I know. But sometimes you have to talk about things you don't want to. I need to know how you got those things inside you, so I can find them and run some tests. Outside your body. Outside the culture that's been created in you. Because who knows..." I couldn't finish the thought.
"How long it'll last? Yeah, I know. You don't have to remind me. And if it gets to that point, I'll tell you." She broke into a short raspy cough before setting her jaw and furrowing her brow. She looked like a pissed off skeleton.
"Well, we're at that point, Nora. Your seizures are getting more common, more violent. You're so malnourished, you look like you could break in half. And your blood is so thin that I don't want to draw it for fear that you'll bleed out. No matter what I do, your body just isn't working, Nora. We're down to the wire here.
"Nora, you have to tell me. Soon. I'm begging. I don't think I can save you, I'm trying, god I'm trying. But I don't think there's much time left. But, if I could get ahold of some bdelloids, raw, I could use what I've learned from you to help other people. Maybe if I could find them soon enough, I could use them to help you! I don't know, but I'll never know if you don't help me!"
As I spoke, Nora pulled away and watched my face as I spoke. I couldn't make eye contact, as the tears were welling and threatening to force themselves down my face with every word. But I could see her expression go from angry, stern, accusing, and offended, to scared, alone, confused, and hopeless. By the end, she was looking at her feet, tears rolling, apparently defeated, deflated, and ready to talk.
"My dad. My dad gave me PTA. Well, he let me get it anyways. He made me sleep in the basement. See, he's really religious, but I'm not. And he thought that the disease was, like, in a way, god's punishment for all the evil that people like me let into the world. Like another flood. Only that god can't do another flood because he promised, but now he's killing all the sinners with little monsters in their brains. That's what he said when the news broke.
"I argued with him, and he pushed me in the basement. He said it was because he loved me, but he couldn't associate with me in 'times like these', and he said that to save me from the illness, he had to show god that he could punish me and help me get right.
"So I lived down therefor several years, and my mother threw table scraps whenever she could, when he wasn't paying attention. And he would stand up at the top of the steps and yell down sermons and scriptures, and he would pray. And sometimes, he'd just stand up there and weep.
"Then, my mother died. She got sick, and she died. And he threw her body down at me, screaming about how I'd helped bring this disease into the world, into his home, and how I had killed his wife, how I killed my moma because my sins had been cast onto her. That god had punished her for raising up a daughter that wasn't right with god. He said that I might as well have did it with my own hands.
"Of course, being that close to her is where I probably got the PTA from. I mean, she was still warm from first death, and wet with the blood from the shotgun that kept her that way. Her blood got all over me..." Nora started to shiver a little, with a distant look in her eyes. I put my gloved hand on her knee to comfort her. She continued on.
"Anyways. I started to get sick then. It was just a sniffle, but I knew what was happening. My mother was decomposing right beside my bed, I knew what was next. I didn't have much time left.
"A couple nights later, my dad got really pissed off at the world. He wasn't seeing straight. He came downstairs, didn't even stop at the top like normal. He came all the way downstairs and just stared at me for like ten minutes. He was crying, but he was mad. Then he started to mumble to himself, and I couldn't understand what he was saying. Then he yelled, "ANSWERMEDAMMIT!" so loud that it scared me. So I said, 'I can't understand what you said? What did you say?' and he asked, really quiet this time, really creepy-calm, 'Are you a child of god or of satan?'And I said..."
Nora choked, coughed hard for several moments, took a breath and swallowed hard. She looked guilty, sorry, ashamed. Her face looked dark and horrified, like I'd never seen her look. I put my hand on hers and nodded for her to continue.
"And I said, 'Neither, Daddy,' I said, 'I'm your kid. I always have been, and I always will be till the day we're both dead. There is no god, and that's why the world is like the way it is, and that's why I have to live in a basement with my dead mom's carcass, even though I never did jack shit! And that's why you're like the way you are, because HE ISN'T REAL!' and he just... he lost his shit, Dahlia, he started screaming with no words, and he attacked me. That's how I got that gash on my leg. He pulled a beam straight off the railing for the stairs, and he hit me with it, hard.
"Somehow, I managed to get behind him and I ran up the steps and I slammed the door and I locked it. And he was hitting it and slamming against it, and I knew he'd knock it down, so I ran out of the house, and I locked everything up. And I knew if I kept still eventually he'd get out and come find me, and who knows what would happen then.
"I kept running til I couldn't run anymore. And nothing looked the same as it did before the basement, Dahlia, everything was all run down, and there were no people anywhere. There was no food anywhere, no water.
"So when I got to the point I couldn't run or walk anymore, I sat down, and I tried to think of what I could do. I was really thirsty, and I had run into this little forest, so I rested til I could walk again. So I started walking again and I found this little pond. I mean, it looked little, but I got in and it was real deep. One of those places that probably doesn't even dry out during drought because there's an underground well or something. Anyways, I drank water from there, and I slept there that night, because I was sure I was getting ready to die. I had PTA for a week by then, there was no way I wouldn't be undead by morning. I just hoped a bear or something would find me and eat me first. But I woke up the next morning, and I was wondering if I was undead yet, but I was really thirsty still, so I drank more water from that pond. By a couple days later, I was pretty well convinced I wasn't undead, because I was hungry and thirsty and I was still sleeping at night, so I ate some roots and wild onions, I didn't think about how they might be infected from being around open water, but what did it matter anyways? I was already infected. And I had drank that water. The worst that would happen was I died, which I was ready for anyways. But I didn't. And a little while later, I actually felt good. Like, the cough went away and everything.
"I walked and I walked, until I got so tired, and so hungry, and I had no idea where I was, and the cough was coming back, and I was just so hungry, so I stopped walking. I went to sleep in this pile of rubbish, and I waited to just die already. That's about the time you came around."



I keep dreaming of Belle, of my mom, of Imena, of John... It's all so crazy. My gramma knows a woman who used to be a shrink, so I went to see her the other day, hoping she could tell me why I was dreaming of these things.
"Hi there, Dahlia, your gramma told me that you needed someone to talk to... for a second opinion. I'm Bea, would you like some coffee?" She's a short woman, with red hair and a friendly old face. She's probably about the same age my mom would be. She brings me into her little apartment and sits me down on a big, squishy, old leather couch. It's black. To the right is a big red armchair with only a few tears in the arms. There's a black ottoman between us, and a window looking out over the old main street. On the walls are photographs in frames, of a much younger version of Bea, more like my age, with a baby boy and a man about John's current age. In one, they're at the beach, in another there's snow everywhere, the boy is a bit older there, and they're all in big puffy jackets and hats. There are paintings as well, most of them in warm colors, red, orange, purple. A little yellow flecks here and there about the room, but the overall feel is calm and warm.
As I'm taking everything in, I hear her preparing the coffee in the next room over. "Sugar, hon?" She calls. Her voice is kind of soft and light, very kind and calm.
"Yes, ma'am, but just a little." I watch as she glides back in the room, slippers, loose slacks and billowy blouse. She reminds me of a friend of my mothers' from way back when, "Yogi" she was called.
She gingerly places the tray of mugs down on the ottoman between us, kicks off her slippers, and curls up with her mug, little tendrils of steam hugging her face. I lift up my cup and take a sip. It's bitter, a little gritty, but very warm. The smell of coffee, as always, makes me feel relaxed and open.
After a moment or two, Bea smiles at me, and places her mug back on the tray. She tucks her knees over to her left, and begins speaking in a way that is at once comforting and in control.
"Well, like I said, my name's Bea. Before PTA, I was a therapist, and now I help in the gardens with things like watering and gathering and that sort of thing. I live here alone, and I've lived here for very, very long. I love to talk to people, and in my spare time, I counsel people who still need it. I very much enjoy meeting new people, and even more, I enjoy helping the people I meet. Most people who come to me in this capacity, though, are going through difficult times in their lives. I can give advice, or I can just listen, whichever the speaker needs. So, Dahlia, tell me about yourself?"
Throughout the speech, I watched her eyes and listened to her voice. She had this way about her, this love that emanated out of her, I felt at ease.
"Bea, I've been having dreams about my... family. I don't know if you can give me advice about it, but I need an objective opinion. I really want to trust you, but some things about my story... I can't tell you without risking a lot--on both our parts. So, I guess I'll just tell you what I dreamed about about."
Bea wasn't smiling anymore; she had a concerned, but encouraging frown along her brow, and nodded for me to continue. It seemed like she was listening intently, so I went on to tell her what I had dreamed about that night.
"Well, the first thing I remember, I was in this prison. I knew everyone there, but at the same time, I didn't. I felt like I couldn't trust them, but I wanted them to trust me. I remember, though, that Belle was there. You don't know who Belle is. Belle was this girl... I lived with her for a long time. We were like sisters, I guess. She was a lot younger than me. She could have been my daughter, biologically. But anyways, she was there. And her girlfriend, Imena, she was there. See, before we moved here, Belle and Imena were very close, and you hardly ever saw them apart. They were lovely. Imena was there, and in the dream, she and Belle were together, and they were bunked together. Well, something bad happened, so we had to run away from the prison. I can't really remember, but we ran away in the night, me and Belle and Imena. And we ran a very long way through a forest, and then we came to this little town, where my mother was still alive.
In reality, my mother died a few weeks before PTA officially broke, and in this dream, she was living in this little po-dunk town. She was a waitress. We found her, and we stole her away in the night to run with us. We went all over, the four of us, until we got to this city, and we stayed in a hotel. I don't think PTA was a thing in this dream, because while we were staying there, there were no checkups to get in, there was no viral security, and we weren't even worried about breathing unprocessed air without worms or pills.
Well, so we check into this hotel, and John, who in reality is my ex, is there. And the hotel has three separate rooms, one for Belle and Imena, one for mom, and one for me and John. Well, I was visiting with my mom, just shooting the breeze, when she hands me this pregnancy test. You know, like the old fashioned kind that you peed on and it would tell you if you were pregnant? I've never used one, but my brother had had a girlfriend when I was a kid, and Mom had bought them a few, 'just in case', and I had seen them. Anyway, she hands me one and says, 'you need to check.' So I go in the bathroom and do it, and it says I'm pregnant.
"So I go back in the room, and I give it to John, and he just looks at me, and says 'get out.' and I ask him why, and he just gets angry and starts throwing things, so I grabbed Belle and yanked her away from Imena, and my mother runs after us.
"As we're running out of the lobby, there are these three dogs made of stone, and they're all lined up against a wall facing the wall. Belle starts to freak out, and Mom just yanks us down the hallway. The dogs are following us, every time we look away. We're all afraid, and we're running, but the lobby is turning into this crazy labyrinth, and we just can't figure out how to get away. So Mom just picks Belle up like a baby, and throws her to the dogs. I scream and try to run after her, but Mom won't let me, she just drags me away, and we're suddenly on the steps, and Belle is being ripped to pieces, and Mom just stands there, with her arms wrapped around me so tight I can barely breathe, and makes me watch. And then I woke up."

Bea took a moment to gather her thoughts, before asking, "How did your mother die?"
"She... She killed herself," I didn't want to say it, but what else was there to say?
"Are you afraid of turning into your mother? Do you ever think about it, like wondering if you're similar to her in different ways?"
"All the time. Just about every decision I've ever made has been influenced by her in one way or another. I try to stay busy so I don't have to think about it, but here... without Belle... There's just no way to avoid it."
"Where did you live with Belle before?"
"On a military sanctuary in Pennsylvania."
"And you decided to come here... because someone was chasing you?"
"Yeah, John. I... crossed him. Belle and I decided that it would be best to just get out."
"But why here? Why to this town? Was it to see your grandmother?"
"I guess. I wanted to know if she was still alive. I wanted to know what she was like now. What mom might have been like."
"Dahlia, what happened to Belle?"
"She... died...."
"How, Dahlia?"
"I... It was my fault, really... I should have known to be more careful... I should have checked.... I don't know, it happened so fast... She got... shot. By a rifle. It was an accident. A misfire...." I started sobbing uncontrollably, and the coffee mug that I had been clenching so tightly rolled to the shaggy gray carpet, spilling rich black liquid along the fibers, which quickly sucked up the moisture into a big, dark stain.
"Dahlia," Bea pleaded as she moved to the couch beside me and pulled me into her arms. She was such a tiny thing, but she rocked me and cradled me as if I were the small one. "Dahlia, it's all right. What's done is done, and can't be taken back. But you're still here. You're still alive. Belle and your mother are gone, but you have to keep continuing on. You've got to figure out why you're still here? You've got to come up with a reason, even if it's temporarily constructed, for being here? What's your purpose? You seem to be afraid of motherhood, but you took Belle in, did you not? You're capable of good, just like your mother was. Just because she made a poor decision, doesn't make her evil. Everyone makes mistakes. Some of our mistakes are a little more... consequential. It's unfortunate that you've had to survive so much death, but then, everyone who is alive today lives alongside death, battles it, constantly. You've got to find a way to make it mean something, Dahlia. You've learned from your mother's mistakes, and from your own, yes?" I nod, feeling an epiphany coming on. "Yes, you have. And I know you can find a way to make your time here count. And in the meantime, I'm here if you need to talk. I swear on my life that I won't share any of your secrets, and I won't judge you for any of it. The way I make my survival count, Dahlia, is by helping other people, and when that means that I must be silent, I am silent. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah, it does." I answer, gaining composure.
"So, Dahlia, how do you think you'll make your time count? Have you ever given any thought to that?"
"I used to know what I was meant for, I was born to research and help find a cure for PTA. But they don't need me there, anymore. Bea, this is a part of what you can never breath a word about okay? Please, swear you won't ever talk about this, you won't ever think about this, after I say it? But I have to say it out loud. I can't keep it in anymore. Please swear, on something that matters."
"I swear on my husband's soul, I will not tell anyone what you tell me in confidence."
"They've found the cure for PTA. I can't tell you what it is, but they know how to do it. And my purpose, since you asked, is to find a way to keep them from using it."
"But why, Dahlia, why would you want to stop something so important, so amazing, like the end of all this suffering?"
"Because, Bea, whoever has this technology, and the willingness to use it, could and will rule the world, by use of threats, and torture, and favoritism, and death. And I would rather see our world continue to work together to find the right cure than fall apart using the immediate one."



I understand your concern. But I believe I can trust you, and I know you can trust me. So, here's what I know:
The government is hiding something, I'm not sure what, but it has something to do with PTA. I think that someone has found something that may be dangerous. Perhaps they've found the source? Or maybe it's a way to create a weapon? I'm not sure, but it can't be good. I know that there are about 45 individuals who are working with full knowledge, give or take, and I know that their assistants and colleagues are completely in the dark. You are the only person outside of the loop who even knows that there is something to know--besides myself. I am not in the loop officially, and as far as anyone with any power is concerned, I have no idea that there is even a secret.
I was getting concerned about a conspiracy when I tried to contact a long-time friend of mine, who told me he was going to be busy about a week before you disappeared. I wanted to set up a meeting with him to reunite, just check in on each other, and he had never been one to avoid me before. When I asked him what he would be busy with, he evaded the question. Then, a week later, I hear that a young biologist has uprooted herself and her daughter and vanished without a trace--and stole a gun and jeep from her base. When the official word got out, it came in the form of a warrant for your arrest. When I saw the name on the release, I almost couldn't believe it. I've seen your input in different conferences, and spoken with people who have worked closely with you, and it didn't seem to add up. So I got in contact with your immediate supervisor, who told me that she was confident that you were okay, but that she had no idea where you were or what happened to you.
Among those signs were other, more abstract indicators that I won't go into detail about at the moment. However, I figured if anyone would tell me what I wanted to know, it would be someone who was off the grid. And I figured that there was little chance of coincidence that people would start acting strangely right before you disappeared with a mark on your head. (Figuratively, of course--they want you arrested, not dead).
I didn't know how to contact you, though. So I just started praying that God would take care of you, and would help our paths to cross. I know that you won't see it as divine intervention, but Dahlia, I am thankful that the lord provided this path for us to converge on. I'm glad that I had something that could help you, and I'm glad that my reputation was positive enough for you to seek me out when you needed a friend.
This is all I know, and I hope that it inspires you to find trust in me. Now, here is what I am asking of you:
I would like to know what the secret is. Or, at the very least, the possible political implications of the secret breaking the public. I don't want to break the secret outright, I just want to know why it is so important to keep it secret, that way I can, in good conscious, continue to not spill the fact that there is a conspiracy of some sort going on right now. And I would like to use my connections and influence to help the public and my friends prepare for the inevitable day when this secret becomes public. So please, share with me what made you so afraid that you fled, and tell me why you don't share your knowledge with the world.
I know why you may not want to share with me: I have power. I have influence. I have contacts. If I knew where you were or what you knew, there's always the chance that I could betray you and capture you. But you have the power of anonymity right now. You could tell the public, but you've chosen to stay silent. Why?



Thank you for your help. It's been a few weeks now, and while her condition is not improving, she has not died yet, which is, as you know, a miracle considering she's been infested with PTA for so long. I'm taking every precaution with her so I don't communicate the disease outside of her living quarters. I won't gross you out with all the gory details of our current living situation, but it's not pleasant.
As to your questions of my current political standing: You may have known that I was involved with John Smith for a while. And you may know that his name is one that is involved in the current rumors circulating the upper crust of scientists and politicians. Well, he got me involved in a way that I wasn't prepared for--or willing to participate in. Essentially, my only two options were to work for free or get out. I chose to leave. I had no way of knowing that things would get so out of hand that I would literally be on the run. My original plan was to leave for a few months, a year at the most, until everything blew over or John moved somewhere new. I had every intention of continuing my work in the future, but as you can see, that is proving very difficult.
I don't want to get you involved in the way that I am involved with the secrets of the state right now. If I had the choice, I would prefer to be in the dark right now. Many things have changed, and I am sorely unhappy with the result of my life choices. So, until I know exactly how well-trusted you are within the scientific community (ie, how much do you know on your own???) I will regretfully not be able to share any information that  I have gathered from within the government with you. I'm sure that you'll understand. And I recognize that this is a sort of catch-22, considering that I don't know how much you know and you don't know how much I know, so neither of us can, in good conscious, share with one another any important information without a great amount of trust and treason. I'm already in enough trouble for what I may-or-may-not know, so I can't be certain that anyone not currently working at my side isn't trying to peel a confession out of me, which is not going to happen any time soon.
So, Sylvan, that leaves us with only one option if we're going to be discussing anything confidential: You're going to have to tell me what you know first, or else this communication is going to have to cease immediately, for my safety and your own.
Thank you for your support and your help with identifying the creature in my patient. I hope that we can work out an agreement, if not, then it's been a pleasure corresponding with you,
Dahlia Lynz