“What did we learn before our source was shut down?”

Smiddy knew from the chilling tone of Elfin’s voice that she would not brook any prevarication in his response. He thought, as he had often thought before, that hers was probably the most inappropriate name for anyone he had ever known. Yes, her tiny, delicate features were elf-like, but elves tended to be mischievous, whereas Elfin was … he was still struggling to think of an appropriate word when she repeated the question.

“Smiddy, I asked what we learned before our source was shut down?”

Snapping back into the moment, he spoke up in the strongest tones he could muster. “We learned that Mr. Jong Min-Jun had successfully perverted the course of the Hu Foundation’s Acceleration Project by contaminating their test culture.”

“Is that all?” queried Elfin.

“In essence, yes,” confirmed Smiddy. “I have all of Mr. Jong’s reports up to the time when he was, as you put it, shut down. Obviously there’s much more detail but, yes, that’s the gist of it.”

Elfin stared hard at Smiddy. Ridiculous though he knew it was, he found it difficult not to believe that she could see into the inner machinations of his mind. With exceptionally bad timing, the word he had been searching for chose this moment to pop into his head. “Goblin!” It seemed so loud inside his skull that Smiddy was worried that she might have heard it and understood its significance.

Eventually, at the end of an agonisingly long silence, Elfin said, “So that’s it?” As she spoke, she was staring out of her office window towards the distant outline of the Hu Foundation complex. “Do we know where Mr. Jong is now?”

Smiddy was still distracted by his realisation that ‘Goblin’ would have been an infinitely more suitable name for his boss than ‘Elfin’. Whereas elves were mischievous, goblins were downright malicious, ever spiteful. He dismissed the thought and replied, “No. We’ve had nothing from him since he was found out, so our best guess is that the Hu Foundation has him incarcerated in some secure location…”

“No matter,” interjected Elfin. “We have no further need of him right now. If he re-surfaces we’ll think about what to do with him. Given the Foundation’s standard MO, it’s entirely possible that he has been eradicated.”

It disturbed Smiddy that, despite everything he knew about Elfin, he still found her not just extraordinarily beautiful but also utterly captivating. This was, he knew, entirely because of her delicate appearance and her sublimely feminine shape, but whatever the reasons he could not deny how she made him feel.

She defied the conventions of feminine beauty in so many ways, yet Elfin was undeniably lovely to look upon. She reminded Smiddy of the women in the paintings of H.R. Giger – terrifying but alluring. Why, he asked himself, was he attracted to a woman with two lines of solid steel hex bolts implanted on a panel under the skin of her long, slender neck? There were twelve such bolts, arranged in two rows starting just under her stretched earlobes and running down to her shoulders on each side.

Then he reminded himself that she was arguably not really a woman at all. Despite her appearance, she referred to herself as enby – non-gendered – but Smiddy found it difficult to think of her as anything but female. Weird female, to be sure, but female nonetheless. Suddenly realising that a silence had descended between them, Smiddy blinked his eyes twice, very hard, to snap himself back into the moment.

“Assuming Mr. Jong has been dispatched, how do you think we should proceed?”

Elfin responded instantly. “Have you no ideas of your own?”

Smiddy had to think on his feet. In truth, he had never before encountered a situation like this in all his years with the NanoVit Knowledge Institute. Until now, the rivalry between NanoVit and the Hu Foundation had rarely been anything more than a matter of fierce commercial competition. As they had grown, both companies had diversified into areas far beyond their original business purposes, and inevitably both had acquired interests in market shares where the other was increasingly active.

Now, however, with the development of the Foundation’s Acceleration Project and NanoVit’s own Viral Xpedient, things had been elevated onto a different plane. Smiddy was finding his role within NanoVit increasingly difficult to cope with.

“Ideas?” he stalled, because in truth he had not yet formulated anything that might remotely be considered a plan. “Like you, I was thinking that Mr. Jong is probably not an option worth pursuing.” He was filling in time until he could dream up something that made him sound tolerably dynamic. “It seems to me that we need to locate the outcome of Mr. Jong’s actions. We need to know exactly what it is that he has achieved.”

To his amazement, Elfin’s entire demeanour changed in an instant. “Brilliant!” ey declared. “Utterly brilliant!” A huge smile creased the lines around eir eyes, and ey took a long, deep breath which lifted eir breasts up, making eir nipples jut out beneath the diaphanous top of eir dress.

Smiddy was both delighted and relieved for at least an entire second until he noticed a look in eir eyes which he had only ever seen there once before, a terrifying brightness suffused with an inexplicable inner incandescence.

“Remind me, Smiddy,” inquired Elfin, fingering the silver locket which hung on a thin chain around eir neck. “Have we ever fucked?”

“We?” It was all Smiddy could do to utter the word, until he miraculously dredged up another brief phrase from where he did not know. “You and me?”

Elfin’s eyes grew wide. “Who else might ‘we’ refer to?”

Smiddy started to say, “Not lately…” but Elfin was clearly not listening.

“How do you self-define?” ey demanded.

He swallowed hard. “Male. Hetero.”

Elfin nodded, but the gesture was ambiguous. “You’re a good, healthy-looking young man. Come closer. Let me get a better look at you.”

As he took a step forward, Smiddy was remembering the disastrous first time they had had sex – the time ey had evidently entirely forgotten. He had been transferred into NanoVit’s Surgical Relocation Division for less than a month when ey picked him out, apparently at random, while ey was walking through the open-plan office area to which he had been allocated.

After ey had passed his desk, one of eir assistants had tapped him on the shoulder and indicated that he should follow along behind eir. Obediently, he had fallen in step, completely befuddled, his brain in hyperdrive, as he tried to imagine what this exotically fabulous creature might have in mind. When they reached eir suite of offices, ey dismissed eir retinue and, as they closed the double doors behind them, Smiddy had seen that luminous look in eir eyes for the first time.

Now, here it was again, and Smiddy knew he had no choice but to go along with eir.

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