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Bitter Medicine

Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her British Fantasy Award-winning debut novel Stay Crazy was released in August 2016 by Apex Publications, and her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Interzone, and The Dark. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats.

The telltale heat signature lights up Foster's screen like a Roman candle. "That one," she says, pointing at the blocky warehouse.
Two interns peel off and barrel down the hill to where the second vehicle is parked behind a stand of trees. A few minutes later, Foster hears a muffled gunshot. The orange splotch on the screen slowly fades.
Someone hands her binoculars. "Take a look."
Foster peers through the specs. Beyond the murky windows she sees the interns making the usual preparations: decontaminating the scene, bagging the body, taking pictures. One of them, Jeff, peels a length of skin off the wall.
"Should we go help them?"
"I think they've got it covered."
Below, Jeff slings sacks of already-rotting Shaper flesh onto the truck. The other member of the collection team gets into the driver's seat. They gun it up the hill and park near the van, and Foster starts putting her screen and other small items back in her bag.
"We'll meet at the lab," she tells the driver, before boarding with the others.
Foster startles awake as they screech to a stop. She rubs her eyes, looking out at the drab medical plaza which houses the Central California Cancer Research Lab. She stretches her arms, nearly smacking the man next to her in the face.
"Sorry, guy," she says. But he's still dozing.
The security checkpoint seems to take longer than usual, and Foster climbs out of the van to see what's up.
Sure enough, it's a protester. Foster rolls her eyes. "The Shapers lost. We won. Get used to it."
"We could have waited. Their blood is on our hands!"
The protester tugs at Foster's shirt. Foster circles around to glare at the woman, her hand bunching into a fist. "Do you want to get arrested? Do you?"
"They gave us a wonderful gift and we killed them for it."
The blood rushes to Foster's face. "Nobody wanted to kill them. But do you want to be the one who had to wait? Or your mom, your grandmom?"
"They don't live that long. Or at least didn't," the protester spits back. She holds up a length of chain she's looped around her leg and the fence. "To hell with your dirty medicine!"
"Get her off there," Foster snaps at the guard. He nods and brings out the bolt cutters. The chain snaps, the gate whines open, and the protester squeals as the guard drags her away.
Foster walks alongside the truck, then helps carry the sacks to the basement. As the overhead fluorescents turn on, she gags a bit at the smell emanating through the Pyrex containers that line the walls.
"Get it on the table," Foster says. Jeff and the others empty the sacks, and Foster splays out the organs and skin folds. "Whoa, this is a fresh one."
Someone hands her a scalpel. "Had it spawned yet?"
That was always hard to tell. Three of the Shapers' seven different sexes were involved in reproduction, and the immediate decay of their bodies upon death made identification nearly impossible. "If it did, we won't know for seven years." And then we'll go out there, shoot them and bag them, and deliver the "gift" to the next group of patients. And so on, and so on.
"I hope so. There's a report from the Maryland lab that says reproduction is down among Shapers."
"Or they've just gotten better at hiding," Foster says, snapping on her gloves.
In addition to the special property of their flesh, Shapers could also take on the form of living creatures, usually humans. It had been a little boy who had whispered the formula for the chemical that cured cancer into a Harvard professor's ear. The heat signature, though, never lied.
"Formaldehyde," Foster says, and Jeff the intern slips a sample vial into her hand. She delicately picks up the pieces of shattered Shaper and bottles them.
"When do we send out the next batch?"
"On Tuesday, I think. It'll be ripe by then."
Jeff nods. "I'm heading home now."
She waves at him and the others. "I'll be here a while. You all take off." Most do.
Foster dissects the Shaper's head, removing its eyes and plopping them into separate vials. She hums as she works. When she looks down at the table, she startles.
"They really do look like us," she says to no one, examining the Shaper's pinned face. And we killed them.
Scrubbing her hands, she watches Shaper blood run down the drain.
They deserved to die. They knew our bodies well, but they didn't know our minds. They thought we'd be satisfied to wait for our cure until they died of natural causes. Foster laughs, thinking of that innocent face she'd just vialed. Shapers should never have told humans that the cure for cancer was their own aged remains.
Foster leaves the lab well after midnight. She orders a rideshare and waits near the guard station, one hand on the pepper spray in her purse.
To her left, bushes rustle.
"I'm armed," she says, fearing another protester.
It's a squirrel, fat for winter. The squirrel watches Foster with glossy black eyes, and she kneels down to look at it.
"Hey there, little guy."
The critter approaches her cautiously on stubby legs. Foster smiles at it. But then it darts away, casting one look back at her. This time its eyes are sad, pained, and most of all intelligent. Not the intelligence of a human, but something very close, if a little naive.
"You have gotten better at hiding." But what does that mean for us?
The car pulls up, and Foster gets in, trembling.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017
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