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EP568: Dr. Mbalu and the Butcher’s Daughter (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Megan Chaudhuri

NARRATOR: Laurice White

HOST: Caron J.

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives outside of Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her fiction has appeared in Analog, Crossed Genres, and Futuristica, among other places.

about the narrator…

Laurice is a theater graduate and long time theater student. She’s read stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod and for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey on The End is Nigh and The End is Now – the first two volumes of The Apocalypse Triptych.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

Dr. Mbalu and the Butcher’s Daughter

By Megan Chaudhuri

With a raspy pop, the cell sprayer in Rebecca’s hand sputtered one last drop of fur progenitor cells. Ignoring her stiff back, she leaned over the culture vat and daubed the cells onto the pink, gel-sculpted contours of a cheetah’s back muscles. The gel rippled; Rebecca held her breath as the reflexive shiver splashed the surrounding nutrient broth.

“Go in,” Rebecca whispered, her eyes hot and dry behind her goggles. Please, she prayed, conscious of the crucifix’s weight at her neck. Another reflex rippled the gel, as if the nerve matrix suddenly sensed the truth: It grew inside an old Gates Foundation lab trailer on the cheapest hook-up in Little Nairobi, rather than in the hide of an adult cheetah.

But the droplet disappeared slowly, the cells sinking into the gelatinous stew of serum and growth factors that—God willing—would ripen them into a furred skin.

“It’s ready for the fresh growth medium and antibacterials, Ming!” Rebecca called out. She palmed the vat’s control pad; the motor vibrated against her legs as she carefully lowered the cheetah’s contours beneath the broth. The pink fluid bubbled as it swallowed their unceasing work of the past months. Past years. Past one-point-three decades, actually, since the Tuesday when her mother’s partner had brought home an empty Kenya Wildlife Service uniform and a tiny, worn crucifix. The blood had been washed off its bone surface, but no one could repair the chip left by the poacher’s bullet.

Rebecca shook herself before her mind could follow its favorite bitter path—a path that lead from one dead poacher to, of all places on God’s green Earth, the lot next door. Her lot.

Rebecca turned towards the tiny walk-in fridge. “Ming?”

The walk-in’s insulated door was ajar. Chilled fog pooled on the vinyl floor.

“Ming? What’s—”

The fog parted as Ming staggered out, eyes bulging. Her gloved hands clutched a single plastic bottle of nutrient medium.

“Rebecca, look!” Ming thrust out the bottle. Behind the condensation, the fluid looked orange instead of blood red. Rebecca took it, the cold, heavy weight strangely distended in her gloved hands. Automatically, she turned it over to check the label: DMEM/F-12 Mammalian Tissue Medium (5% Bovine Serum Albumin, by Volume). EXPIRY DATE: 2068-04-01.

“It’s fine, we still have a month—” Rebecca gasped. Rotating the bottle had swirled up a cloud of thick white particles inside the liquid. One ragged sphere broke apart, trailing clumps of bacteria like a comet’s tail.

Rebecca’s body felt as cold as the medium. As cold as when she had been handed her dead mother’s crucifix. As cold as each time she stepped out of the trailer and spotted her, laboring and living while Rebecca’s mother was rotting. “Are—are all the bottles contaminated like this?”

Ming swallowed. “We must not have noticed. Between the condensation on the outside, and…” She trailed off, but Rebecca filled in the blank: working 18-hour days for the past three months, putting off anything that could possibly be ignored. “The seals must be faulty or maybe something happened during manufacture.”

“Faulty seals!” Rebecca swore. She glanced towards the shelf with the filters that could sieve out bacteria, but caught herself. Even if they had filters with the right pore size, the medium’s nutrients were gone. Forever.

Rebecca turned the bottle over, sensing the pressure built up inside, the waste gases exhaled by a billion bacteria as they had grown and divided and consumed the precious nutrients. As they had devoured her hopes for meeting her funders’ demands—for creating the world’s first in vitro cheetah skin—for flooding the market with her too-real fakes, destroying the world’s selfish lust for the hides of the beautiful beasts her mother died defending.

“Okay,” Rebecca said, her voice high-pitched. She met Ming’s anxious gaze. “Let’s be rational. We don’t have any medium. The skin needs an entire turnover into fresh medium in forty-two hours.”

“F-forty-six hours,” Ming said, “if we keep adding glucose and buffering against acidity. But the cellular waste products are going to build up too much beyond that time frame.”

“I haven’t done inventory in three months…Do we have the reagents to make medium from scratch?”

Ming shook her head. “We have glucose and the amino acids for nutrients, plus some concentrated salt solutions.” Her shoulders slumped beneath her lab coat. “But we don’t have any bovine serum.”

Rebecca inhaled sharply, feeling her surgical mask press against her nose. All of their gene tweaks optimized the cells to grow in bovine serum or plasma. Such a clever idea; she’d almost heard her mother’s praise when she first thought of it.

Rebecca yanked a pen out of her lab coat’s pocket and grabbed a paper towel from the stack by the disinfectant. “Okay. So we need thirty liters of sterile bovine serum- or plasma-supplemented medium in forty-six hours.” The pen scratched across the paper towel, mixing Mandarin and English into a mathematical pidgin. “If I SMS now and get an order rushed from Mombasa’s dockyard, it’ll cost…”

The number had many significant digits.

Ming sucked in her breath. “I guess we won’t be hiring an assistant after all.”

“No. We won’t.” Rebecca set down the pen with more precision than it needed. “I’ll ping the supplier and tell them they bloody well replace some faulty product for free. You’ll go to the bio department at the U of N branch campus and borrow some medium in the meantime.”

Ming’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Rebecca could practically read her thoughts: Ming’s visa was project based. If the project expired, the young bioengineer had thirty days to leave Kenya. Thirty days to drag herself back to Beijing, to brave her mother’s disappointment that his eldest child had frittered away her education on some damn cats.

If only my mother was alive to be disappointed in me. Jealous, vile thought. Rebecca’s hands tried to run over her the bristly part of her afro, but found only a surgical cap. “I know, Ming. It’s going to be tight.”

With a nod that looked like it wanted to be a shake, Ming stripped off her gloves and dropped them into the biohazard bin. The smaller woman’s footsteps faded as she passed into the jerry-rigged airlock to change into street clothes.

In the company of only the cheetah skin and her thoughts, Rebecca clenched her hands tighter and tighter until her finger bones throbbed with pain. If only she had checked the medium earlier.

If only she had been sick and kept her mother at home that day one-point-three decades ago.

If only the cheapest lot in Little Namanga was somewhere else—anywhere else—than beside the shop owned by Mrs. Moses Ongoro, wife and widow of that damned poacher.

With the same precise movements she had used to seed the fur progenitor cells, Rebecca peeled off her gloves. Dropped them into the center of the biohazard bin. Ripped the label off the contaminated bottle, and followed after Ming into the changing room, her footsteps echoing off the trailer’s vinyl floor.

#

As Rebecca stepped out of the lab trailer’s electromagnetic shielding, she huffed and covered her nose. The trailer was wedged between Ongoro’s butcher shop, a mobile recycler, and an abandoned Chinese grocer, the fading characters barely visible beneath red graffiti proclaiming KENYA FIRST. The stench of offal was stronger than usual this early; without intending to, Rebecca glanced over.

No Ongoro this morning, thank God. In the widow’s place, her teenaged daughter was mucking out the empty, manure-filled pens behind the butcher shop. Rebecca could count each vertebra in the girl’s spine through her faded clothes. Only the poor worked in slaughterhouses; only the poor ate meat that grew on animals.

Good, Rebecca thought. Before the girl could see her staring—before Rebecca could struggle against the small voice of guilt that sounded, ironically and so painfully, like her mother’s voice—she turned away. With her mobile, she scanned the label’s QR code and pinged customer service.

“—hăo?”

Rebecca almost dropped the mobile. Eyebrows furrowing, she lifted it to her ear. “Nĭ hăo. Ah, sorry, I was expecting an auto-rep.”

“No, I am human,” came a woman’s voice, the warmth sounding as cultivated and precise as her Mandarin. “My name is Jing-Jing, and I am a technical services representative with Weibo-Thermo-Fisher. Am I speaking with Dr. Mbalu?”

“Y-yes,” Rebecca said, smoothing her skirt as if Jing-Jing—or whoever she really was, most call centers were in Mexico now—could see her. She took a deep breath and ignored the sounds next door of labored breathing, of a shovel scraping concrete, of the liquid plop of animal waste dropping into a bucket. “Jing-Jing, I am calling about some contaminated medium, even though the seals were intact and we stored it properly. The lot number is—”

“I have it,” Jing-Jing interrupted. “You were automatically routed to me because this lot was recalled last month due to a manufacturing issue. Dr. Mbalu, I do apologize for the inconvenience, and we at Weibo-Thermo-Fisher would normally be happy to replace the medium at no cost.”

Thank God! Rebecca grinned, but her face froze as she parsed out a key word. “‘Normally’?”

The silence stretched a second too long. “Dr. Mbalu, I do apologize, but when we emailed you last month with the recall notice, we could not have anticipated certain…logistical issues.”

Rebecca ran her free hand over her hair. The surgical cap had squashed the sides into matted felt. “Logistical issues,” she said.

There was the faint sound of typing, of somebody muffling a mic and speaking in rapid Spanish. From the butcher’s shop came the noise of a hose being turned on and sprayed across concrete. Rebecca maxed the mobile’s volume.

“—some transit issues occurring with our shipping contractors in Kenya right now.”

“Transit issues?” Could she only repeat what the woman said?

“A…disagreement, between local contractors and China Freight Co.”

A strike. Rebecca’s eyes focused on the graffiti slashed across the abandoned grocer, the words KENYA FIRST blurred where the red paint had dripped until it clotted and dried in the sun.

“Wait,” Rebecca said. “Don’t you have a manufacturer in Namanga?”

“Yes—”

“Thank God!”

“—but the Kenyan Health Ministry has ordered all medium to go to organ and blood culture facilities in hospitals and clinics.”

“Hospitals and clinics,” Rebecca echoed. The sounds of laborious cleaning next door had stopped. At least she had the small mercy of briefly, so briefly, pretending for one moment that she was not next to the tiny butcher’s shop run by the widow of the bastard who’d poached her mother’s beloved cheetahs—and then shot the first ranger who tracked him down.

“Yes, Dr. Mbalu.”

Ongoro’s daughter passed through her peripheral vision, the faded clothes replaced with a well-patched school uniform. Rebecca closed her eyes as she thanked Jing-Jing and hung up, her thoughts tangling around the phrase hospitals and clinics. The only clinic in Little Namanga that cultured red blood cells was the Margaret Kenyatta Public Clinic.

Ming. Rebecca tapped her mobile’s chat icon. There was a single SMS.

1 serum free bottle at u of n branch

Rebecca rubbed her face, feeling the grooves left in her skin by the surgical mask. They had one bottle of medium—without serum.

I could just stroll next door and ask for some fresh cow blood. Or she could sprout wings, flutter to Mombasa’s docks, and single-handedly resolve the shipping strike.

Rebecca tapped out a reply. Then she pocketed the mobile and scraped the mud off her sandals. The mobile’s slight weight bounced against her leg as she strode past the abandoned grocery and took a left, turning onto the narrow asphalt road that would take her to the clinic—and, God willing, thirty liters of bovine serum-supplemented medium.

#

The MK clinic was a long, low series of tin-roofed buildings, linked together by shaded walkways. The shade was crowded with patients and family. As Rebecca approached, the muted noise of their anxious conversations and the smells of sweat, vomit, and cigarette smoke rushed at her, the signals flooding her nerves and worming their way into the primitive part of her brain. For one moment she was a child, standing over her mother’s casket, trapped in place by the thick, wailing crowds of aunties and uncles and cousins.

She was breathing too fast. Rebecca halted, closed her eyes, and cupped her hands over her mouth, forcing herself to draw in the carbon dioxide-enriched air until her nausea passed.

Wiping her hands on her skirt, Rebecca circled the crowds and moved among the buildings, peering at doors and windows and the occasional unhelpful sign. She stopped at an unmarked door plastered with the telltale orange biohazard symbols. The techno beat of Nairobi dance music pulsed inside. A sheet of notebook paper was taped to the door’s glass, scrawled with sun-faded sharpie: Erythro Culture Techs – Keep music volume less than 30!!! Women are giving BIRTH next door!!!—Dr. Sankori

The door was locked. The doorknob vibrated with the music, its volume well over 30. Rebecca glanced again at the note, nodded, and turned towards the building next door. It was a twin of the erythropoiesis culture building—except people moved in and out. Lots of people, who seemed to get larger, to fill the world with their body heat and sweat and breath, as she moved into the clinic.

Light-headed, she listened to herself get directions to Dr. Sankori from a harried midwife. Felt her legs carry her down a hall and around a corner, towards the scents of bleach, shit, and fresh blood.

Red puddled on the vinyl floor. Drops had splattered up the nearest wall, the blood trickling down until it coagulated. An old woman in faded scrubs was swabbing the puddle and wringing out the sponge into a bucket.

Shot, Rebecca’s instincts told her. Someone had been shot in the head, neck, chest, where a bullet could just nick the edge of a crucifix that would be taken from the body, washed, and presented to another child waiting for her mother to come home—

“Are you the daughter?” said a woman in Swahili.

Rebecca looked up wildly. A middle-aged doctor in blood-stained scrubs had emerged from a nearby room and was closing the door on the faint noises within. The woman skirted the puddle and its cleaner, her movements tired but her voice brisk. “She was hemorrhaging some when we got her in here, but she’s stable on cultured erythrocytes. But we’re running low and need whole blood with platelets and clotting factors from a family member.”

“I-I’m not her daughter,” Rebecca said. The embroidered name on the woman’s scrubs was Dr. Sankori.

Rebecca took a deep breath of air that stank of blood and bleach-curdled proteins. “My name is Dr. Rebecca Mbalu,” she started, her eyes flickering between the hemorrhaged blood, the closed door, and Dr. Sankori. “I’m a local bioengineer working on, ah, a pilot project growing a cheetah skin…” Blood. Door. Blood. “S-so we can swamp the international poaching market and stop these rare megafauna from being driven extinct by our gr-greed but our culture medium’s contaminated and there’s a shipping strike going on so we can’t get any more even though we need it in forty and a half hours, and…I wanted to ask if…”

Rebecca swallowed, realizing she had been staring at the shrinking puddle of blood. She was surrounded by women, men, children who needed blood cells cultured in serum-based medium.

Would Mama have survived if—No. Her mother was dead. And the world’s first in vitro cheetah skin was withering as she dithered here.

“Yes?” Dr. Sankori said.

Rebecca wrenched her gaze from the puddle. “I wanted to ask if you can spare any serum-based medium.”

The fatigue lines deepened on Dr. Sankori’s face. “We can’t give away medium for non-clinical use,” she said, gesturing at the closed door. “We’re barely keeping up as is, and no one donates anymore. As if cultured erythrocytes are the only thing these people need!”

The exhausted doctor’s diatribe—something about the technical limitations of growing functional platelets and synthesizing clotting factors—gave Rebecca the chance to take several deep breaths, to pretend the blood puddle didn’t exist.

“Dr. Sankori, please,” Rebecca interrupted, lowering her voice to keep nearby patients and the cleaner woman from hearing. “We’re getting a fresh order of medium in the next two weeks”—God willing that the strike broke—“and I’ll replace everything. I-I’d also happily donate whole blood or go through apheresis if you need platelets and plasma.”

The doctor shook her head. “We need more than is in your entire body.”

Rebecca ran her hands over her hair. She had one final bargaining chip, although Ming would protest. But at least she’d protest over a healthy, growing cheetah skin.

“Dr. Sankori,” Rebecca said, “if you can see to it that we get medium…well, my colleague and I want to hire an assistant. Perhaps you have a daughter or a son you could recommend…?”

Silence stretched between them, a moment of quiet tension that dimmed the clinic’s noise to a murmur. Even the nearby sounds of scrubbing seemed to stop.

“My son,” Dr. Sankori said, her voice as flat as her expression, “has an excellent position with Weibosoft.”

Rebecca smoothed her skirt, looking away from the woman’s intense gaze. “Oh. I—”

The word see never emerged, because the nerves innervating her tongue—her entire body—were suddenly paralyzed as her eyes met the cleaning woman’s.

Oh, God, I didn’t recognize her in those old scrubs. All the heat in Rebecca’s body rushed to her face, leaving behind a chill that stood every tiny hair on end. This was the closest she had ever been to the poacher’s wife—widow. To her neighbor, Mrs. Moses Ongoro.

Without meaning to, without wanting to, her eyes drew in every detail. The premature gray streaking tight black braids. The brown eyes in a face even more exhausted than Dr. Sankori’s. The skin of her forehead darkened from exposure, creasing as Ongoro stared back.

She’d heard everything, Rebecca realized.

“—filters, instead.”

The doctor’s voice punctured the moment, and the world rushed back in a swirl of chattering patients, sharp-smelling bleach, and one cheetah skin slowly dying back in the lab. Rebecca staggered and caught herself on a doorframe.

“What?” Rebecca said.

“We have a box of filters. Point-six-micron pore—good enough for sterilizing any medium you make from scratch. They’re expired and we can’t use them for the clinic, but everything’s still sealed. They should work for you.”

“Oh,” Rebecca said. “That would…” She took a breath, trying to recalibrate, re-center, reset her expectations—all while Ongoro stared, stared, stared up at her. “Th-that’s great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. They’re yours as soon as you can get me twenty units of platelets.”

“Twenty units,” Rebecca echoed. The sounds of patients and family came at her; already she could feel her breathing speed up. “But I’ll have to talk with all these people—persuade them to donate…”

“You’re a researcher,” Dr. Sankori said. “You’ve persuaded funders to give you money, no?”

I write grant applications, Rebecca wanted to snap. Not—go into a crowd full of anxious people who sound and smell and talk like a funeral gathering…

But without these filters to sterilize the medium she must somehow make from scratch…there would be no more grant applications.

And there would be no more cheetah skin.

Rebecca kept her gaze locked on the doctor’s, refusing to look at that closed door or the puddle of blood. Or Ongoro.

She nodded slowly. “You’ve got a deal.”

#

The next morning’s air was cold, and dew mingled with the sweat on Rebecca’s skin as she pushed the bike and its precious cargo to the trailer. The box of filters was light and she had only pedaled a couple kilometers from the clinic, but she was still woozy from yesterday. Some of the wooziness was the physiological consequence of donating a double unit by apheresis—but most of it was a social hangover from venturing among all those people to beg for donations, her lips pulled back in a smile over teeth clenched against the nausea.

Her breath came even harder as she thought of the murmuring, worrying, grieving crowds.

The padlock’s chain was cold and slick in her shaking fingers. Rebecca fumbled it through the bike’s frame and then untied the box. Clutching the damp cardboard, she unlocked the trailer and sighed with relief as the door swung shut behind her.

In the changing room, Ming’s clothes hung from the hook, her sandals lined up beneath. Rebecca recognized the shirt the smaller woman had been wearing yesterday, a faded paisley print with the words SAVE THE BENGAL TIGER stamped in English.

“What’re you carrying?” Ming said as she appeared in the doorway. She lifted a gloved hand towards her puffy, exhausted-looking eyes, but paused before the latex touched her skin. “Wait. Sorry. I mean, good morning. Is it morning?”

“These’re the filters,” Rebecca said. “Ming, did you spend the night in lab?”

“If it’s morning… technically, yes,” Ming said, her Mandarin thick and slow in the way of the very drunk or the very tired. “After I donated those units last night, I checked on the skin. There was a neoplasm.”

“Good God, Ming!”

“An early trichoepithelioma,” Ming continued. “One of the follicle progenitor cells we seeded must’ve had some rare mutations that slipped past the auto-screen. I excised it with a two-centimeter margin and took some samples for sequencing. The thermocycler’s just finishing now.”

“But—why didn’t you ping me?”

Ming nodded at the box Rebecca was clutching. “Because we need those. Rebecca,” she said, slumping against the narrow doorway, “we need medium. With bovine serum. Plasma, even. Otherwise the cells in the patch won’t take.”

Rebecca ran her free hand over her hair. Carcinogenesis was Ming’s forte, not hers. “How long before you need to patch?”

“By the end of today.”

“Today!”

“Yes. Otherwise the cell layers won’t line up and it’ll be this large, glaring defect e when we show the skin to the funders.”

Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut. All she’d wanted was to take the filters inside and discover that Ming had discovered some long-forgotten bovine serum at the back of the fridge. All she’d wanted was to watch the skin grow healthy and beautiful, the living incarnation of a decade’s dreams and hard work.

All she’d wanted was to never see the widow of her mother’s killer again; to stop being reminded every damn day of her mother’s death by Ongoro’s life, as she labored next door to the cheapest damn hook-up in Little Namanga.

Rebecca rubbed at her face with her free hand, feeling where the cold dew had condensed. Her hand slid down until it met the small chain about her neck, then followed it link by link until she found the crucifix. Her thumb pressed against the crucifix’s chipped edge until the flesh ached. A little more pressure, and she knew the skin would part.

She dropped her hand. Opened her eyes, and passed the box to Ming.

“I’ll get the serum,” Rebecca said, and turned to go outside.

#

Despite the early hour, the butcher shop’s door was propped open. The sounds of running water and something being sawed greeted Rebecca as she stepped inside, forcing her feet to move fast as if she could outpace the heavy cloud of anger, fear, and guilt that descended every time she spotted Ongoro.

But the cloud enveloped her the moment she spotted Ongoro’s back, the woman’s hands excising fat from fresh cow tripe spread across the battered surface beside a stained sink. Rebecca’s sandals scuffed the uneven floor.

Ongoro whipped around, the worn knife in her hand streaked with blood and yellow flesh. All of Rebecca’s hurried resolutions—to regard this simply as a business transaction, to treat Ongoro as nothing other than a poor butcher—dissolved in red haze.

“Mama,” came a teenaged girl’s voice through the door leading back to the pens. Ongoro and Rebecca both twitched. “Do you want me to go to the knackerman before school?”

Ongoro’s throat bobbed. Her reply came out thin and forced. “Yes, Joyce. Don’t wear your uniform; come back to change after you’ve delivered the cow’s blood.”

Cow’s blood. Rebecca started to step forward; Ongoro started to raise the knife. Neither woman actually moved.

“I…” Rebecca took a deep breath. Just a business transaction. “I would like to buy the cow’s blood. All that you have.” Her words came out thin, crisp, and cold as the grave.

Something hardened in Ongoro’s face. “We have forty-two liters from this old bull.”

The blood would be coagulated, and she would get plasma instead of serum after centrifuging it—but that was better than the nothing they currently had. Rebecca listened to herself coolly ask how much per liter.

Ongoro’s answer was quiet, precise, and had far too many significant digits.

Rebecca’s shoulders tightened. “But I can’t—that’s too much!”

“That is within the standard range for fresh blood.”

“Within the standard range?” Rebecca said, pulling out her mobile and fumbling through a search. She waved the mobile screen towards Ongoro, stabbing at the search results. “There are butchers in Nairobi asking for half that!”

“They are wholesale,” Ongoro snapped. “And I doubt they are supporting a child by themselves.”

“That is because they had the good sense to not marry a murderer,” Rebecca hissed, the words easily escaping her feeble resolution.

Ongoro’s nostrils flared. “That is because they did not marry a man who risked his life to support his family.” Her words had the sharp edge of thoughts well-honed over time. “Who risked being shot and jailed by some spoiled, rich bastards who value some damn cats over staving humans! Who would rather see a poor widow work two jobs and her child labor in a damn butcher shop!”

“At least her mother’s alive!” Rebecca shouted, her voice reverberating inside the tiny shop. Beneath the sun-roughened skin, Ongoro’s face was flushed, and her lips were drawn into a sneer. Rebecca realized her own teeth were bared, her jaw locked into a rictus snarl that refused to let any more words escape.

The echo of her shout faded. Rebecca realized she was trembling, her muscles strung with a tension that she had only felt once: when a splinter in her foot had become infected. It felt now as if a scalpel was probing some abscess deep in her, an infection growing in the wound she had taken when her mother died. An infection that had worsened every time she saw Ongoro, heard Ongoro, thought of Ongoro.

Slowly, so slowly Rebecca did not notice it at first, Ongoro’s features smoothed out, her skin settling into its normal lines of exhaustion and worry. The woman took a long, deep breath.

“I will sell you the cow’s blood at cost,” Ongoro said, the words forced out one by one, “if you give my daughter the job with your lab that you offered to Dr. Sankori’s son.”

Of all the things Rebecca could have done—could have said–she just blurted out, “She’s too young.”

“My daughter already does a man’s work.” Ongoro said, and looked down at the tripe. “If her life is like her mother’s, someday she will do the jobs of two men, carving up dead animals during the night and cleaning blood and shit and vomit during the day.” The tripe wobbled as the knife snicked off yellow fat globules with more force than seemed necessary. “If her life is like yours, someone else will do the carving and cleaning. If her life is like yours”—the knife jabbed and probed for any lingering fat—“she will not marry a poor man. If her life is like yours, she will never be so desperate that she urges her husband to risk himself poaching one cheetah…and live the rest of her life knowing it is her fault when he kills a ranger, and then dies himself in prison.”

Rebecca watched the woman’s hands as Ongoro began to wrap the tripe in brown paper. Her eyes were too heavy to look up at Ongoro’s face. “But how can I hire and work with and trust your daughter? Why would she work at culturing cheetah skins, at flooding the black market, at stopping men like her father from poaching cheetahs?”

“You need cow’s blood. I have cow’s blood.” The paper closed over the tripe, cloaking the raw organ in a tidy package. Ongoro’s hands stilled. “I, who must bargain with the daughter of the woman whose death sent my husband to prison.”

In the quiet that followed, Rebecca could hear their breathing. As she exhaled, Ongoro inhaled; their lungs passing back the same stale air, as if there was not enough for both to breathe at the same time.

Footsteps broke through the quiet. Ongoro whipped around as her daughter walked in from the back pen.

“I will work hard and honestly for you,” Joyce said. The teenager’s face was a younger, rounder version of Ongoro’s, but her eyes were different. Her father’s eyes, Rebecca realized. “Because I want no one to lose their life over cheetahs again.”

Rebecca looked at the girl. At the widow of her mother’s killer, who had urged him towards the deed and carried the guilt ever since. At the confines of the tiny butcher shop. Through the back door, she could just make out a stretch of morning sky and the battered corner of the lab trailer, where Ming and the cheetah skin and all of Rebecca’s hopes waited.

She could take her knot of anger and hate and guilt back to that trailer, and nurse it to a greater size as the skin curdled and died.

Or she could leave it here on the worn floor of this cramped little shop, and take the daughter of her mother’s killer instead. Could train the girl to tend the cheetah skin. The skin that would live, and thrive, and grow.

Rebecca turned to Ongoro, and nodded.

#

In the trailer, Rebecca set down the first jug of cow’s blood. Curled up on a battered lab chair, Ming slept with her mouth open, oblivious as Rebecca powered up the centrifuge and brought out the filters. Rebecca reached out to gently shake her colleague awake, but paused with her fingers centimeters from Ming’s shoulder.

Rebecca withdrew her hand and turned back to the blood, the filters, and the waiting cheetah skin. She—they—would need Ming later, once the plasma was filtered and combined into the life-giving medium. Until then, the exhausted bioengineer could sleep. Until then, Rebecca could work in the company of just her own thoughts. Today, she would make the medium and feed the skin.

Tonight, Ming would patch the gap left by the tumor.

And tomorrow, Rebecca would open the door to Ongoro’s daughter, and begin teaching the girl what she knew about keeping cheetahs, rangers, and poachers alive.

Rebecca took a deep breath and, with precise movements, pulled on a new pair of gloves.

END

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