CHAPTER 6 : Cliff Hanger
“This view,” Mercy had said, “is just spectacular.”
“On a day like this,” Mr. Park had agreed, “it’s hard to beat.” He pointed out towards the seabirds, mostly pelicans, cormorants and gulls, wheeling over Seal Rocks, then gestured further up the coast to the north. “And just up there, if you like spectacular, you should visit Point Bonita lighthouse. That’s quite fabulous.”
With the latest incarnation of the much-storied Cliff House restaurant standing proudly behind them, Mercy felt she was privileged, living the good life. Working for the Hu Foundation had not only brought her a good standard of living, it had started to give her entree to a world which, as a child, she could only have imagined. As the restaurant’s menu pointed out on its front page, previous illustrious diners had included Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Temple.
She could still remember the first time she’d used her expense account to take Doogle for a romantic dinner, sumptuous oysters followed by mouth-meltingly marvellous filet mignon, at Chapeau on Clement Street. That had been a perfect evening, except that she couldn’t stop peering at the other diners, wondering if any of them were Hu staffers who might recognise her and report back to HQ that she had been seen squandering Hu funds on her boyfriend.
But Cliff House was something else again. She’d wondered what she’d done right when Mr. Park had suggested they should lunch there. Was a promotion in prospect? Was he maybe expecting something in return? He did have a reputation as a womaniser but the word was that he preferred girls rather younger than Mercy. Lovely though she was, in her early thirties she was already several years outside his happy hunting grounds.
Their conversation had remained on a friendly but appropriately business-like level throughout the first two courses but while they waited for their desserts to arrive, Mr. Park’s tone of voice changed.
“How long have you been with us now?” he asked. It was a question whose answer she knew he already knew. He was employing it merely to change the direction of their talk.
“Six years next month,” she responded, offering him a demure smile that rarely failed to charm the older men she worked among.
“How have you been getting along with Mr. Jong?”
“I like to think we’re a good team,” she replied. “We work well together.”
Mr. Park folded his napkin into a neat triangle and placed it directly in front of himself. “Good. I’m glad,” he said. “That’s good.” As he smiled across the table at her, he tilted his head a little to the left. “The quality of your work has not gone unnoticed by Mr. Kintsugi and others on the board. Lately, they have been taking an interest in you…” He paused, making it obvious he expected her to respond.
She refreshed her smile. “That’s good to know,” she said, trying to sound positive but non-committal. “Isn’t it?”
Mr. Park nodded. Mercy couldn’t help being reminded of a nodding dog toy in the rear window of a car, because he continued to nod as he spoke. “It’s very good,” he confirmed. “They are impressed.” His nods were reducing by tiny increments as he went on. “Indeed, they are so impressed, that they have instructed me to speak with you, to confide in you, on matters which would not, under normal circumstances, be appropriate for someone at your level.”
She was far from certain, but it occurred to her that this could be the preamble to offering her some sort of promotion. She stared at him, hoping to lock her pale grey eyes into his, but his eyelids had closed, as if he was trying to remember exactly what he was supposed to say.
When he finally opened them, she was still staring at him, still smiling.
“Things are going to change,” he said. “I have been instructed to make you aware of those changes, and to impress upon you that everything I tell you here today is of the utmost secrecy.”
Mercy straightened her spine, so that she was sitting up in her chair in a position she did not feel to be at all natural, but Mr. Park’s demeanour had altered so dramatically in the space of just a few seconds that she knew he was not about to offer her a promotion. This, she sensed, was something else entirely.
The silence that now fell between them lasted so long that, rather than wait for him to resume, she asked, “The utmost secrecy? I’m already bound by the non-disclosure clause in my contract to never reveal anything about my work at the Foundation. Are you saying …”
“I’m telling you that this goes beyond anything you have agreed to in the past,” he paused to let his words sink in. “And it will never appear in a contract or any other written document. This will be a sworn oral commitment entirely and exclusively between you and the highest echelons of the Foundation’s executive.”
Mercy was confused. “How can you be sure I’m trustworthy? If nothing is in writing …”
Mr. Park smiled. “Be assured. We trust you. We believe you to be totally trustworthy. If you will give us your sworn assurance not to reveal anything I am about to tell you…” He didn’t even trouble to finish the sentence. His intense scrutiny of Mercy’s face told her everything she needed to know.
“How can I swear to uphold the conditions of an arrangement whose terms I have not yet been told?” she asked.
“Believe me, you will be more than amply rewarded for your silence,” said Mr. Park.
“And if I break my silence…”
“Well, then,” he said, “we’ll see.”
Not only did Mercy intensely dislike the direction the conversation had taken, she found it threatening, and frightening. She prided herself on her fortitude in the face of adversity, but this was unlike anything else she had ever encountered. She took a long, slow, deep breath and returned Mr. Park’s penetrating stare, locking her eyes to his without blinking.
“The Butterscotch Pot de Creme is for the lady, I believe,” said the waiter who had glided silently up to their table.
Mercy held her gaze, even when she heard Mr. Park say, “That’s correct. And I’m having the Frozen Lemon Souffle. It’s such a hot day, don’t you think?” He beamed at the waiter.
“Oh, thank you,” she said as the waiter turned to go. She was grateful to be able to take the opportunity to look away from Mr. Park by examining her dessert in greater detail than was strictly necessary.
“I’m beginning to think perhaps you’ve made the better decision,” he said, as if they had nothing else on their minds other than delightfully sweet confections.
She summoned up a charmingly girlish laugh in an effort to counter his deceptive words.
“Why don’t we start?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, let’s,” she responded, digging the spoon into her creamy butterscotch delight. For just a second, it was almost as if they were nothing more than a pair of colleagues enjoying lunch together.
“So what do you say, Mercy?” he asked, his voice resuming its earlier serious tone now that their waiter had moved off. “Shall we proceed?”
He had never before referred to her as anything other than Miss Yoo, and, under the circumstances, she found the more familiar form of address decidedly uncomfortable. She realised, however, that this could provide a perfect opportunity to re-establish her status.
“Let’s stick with Miss Yoo, for the moment,” she told Mr. Park, catching his gaze again and smiling disarmingly as she wiped a trace of butterscotch sauce from the front of her light blue Selena v-neck tee.
He blinked at her twice and nodded his head ever so slightly in acknowledgement. “Sure,” he said. “So let’s get to the thing. What I have been instructed to tell you, Miss Yoo, is that Mr. Jong has been participating in a major change of direction for the Hu Foundation.”
Again, she was taken by surprise. “Really?” she asked. “I was not aware…”
Mr. Park butted in. “Until now, only Mr. Jong has been actively participating in the new project. Only he knew. Now, however, we feel that you should be brought in.”
They stared at each other for a long moment before Mercy asked, “Brought in? Brought in to what?” Without realising it, she lowered her spoon into her dessert and left it there.
Mr. Park raised another mouthful of lemon souffle to his lips, but spoke before he put it into his mouth. “We’re calling it The Acceleration Project. You won’t have heard of it.”
In the course of the next few minutes, he outlined what he claimed were the most significant details of the project, but Mercy was now on her guard, wondering how much of what he was telling her was true.
According to Mr. Park, the Acceleration Project was designed to put the Hu Foundation ahead of its competitors, notably Nanovit, in the race to develop a universal self-regenerating anti-viral vaccine.
“As I imagine you know,” he told her, “one of the biggest problems with viruses is that they can quickly evolve new strains, new variants, which render existing vaccines ineffective. Think of the problems caused by the Omicron variant. The Acceleration Project aims to circumvent such problems by creating a universal vaccine which ‘learns’ from its interactions with viruses and can therefor evolve, under strictly monitored laboratory conditions, to become effective against any probable or possible new variants. Even before these variants exist.”
Mercy pushed her dessert away towards the middle of the table. “You’re talking science fiction,” she said.
Mr. Park shook his head. “Soon to be just science.”
“I think I need something stronger than butterscotch,” she declared. “How about scotch without the butter?”
Mr. Park laughed and called the wine waiter over. “Two glasses of the Yamazaki,” he said. “Neat.”
Her eyes widened involuntarily. “Yamazaki? You really are pushing the boat out,” she said.
“If the Acceleration Project succeeds,” replied Mr. Park, “we’re talking billions in profit. If you agree to come on board, you and Rother will be moving into a considerably higher tax bracket.”
Mercy could not help laughing. The conversation was becoming almost surreal, but she was beginning to believe it might all be real. “You’re telling me that my immediate boss, Mr. Jong, has been working on this project without me even knowing?”
“Until now, yes. If you agree to our offer, you will work directly with him.”
“The work is reaching a critical phase. We need to move things ahead with all possible speed. Bringing you on board should enable Mr. Jong to make faster progress. If we’re not seeing the kind of results we’d like in a few more weeks, we might have to expand the team even further. For now, though, it will be just you and him.”
“And I can’t even tell Doogle?”
Mr. Park nodded. “Absolutely not. If you need cover stories, we can furnish them. And think how pleased he’ll be, first of all when your income shoots up, and later when you finally can tell him what you’ve been working on.”
Money had never been Doogle’s driving force, so Mercy discounted that side of the offer, but she couldn’t help but find something exciting about the intrigue and mystery of it all. She didn’t relish the idea of perhaps having to lie to Doogle but, ultimately, it would all be worthwhile she told herself, as their two glasses of Yamazaki were placed on the table between them.
Mr. Park raised his glass and held it out towards her. “Kanpai!” he declared.
She laughed again and raised hers to him. “Cheers,” she said as they clinked the glasses together.
After they had both taken their first sips, Mr. Park told her, “Of course, you’ll have to have a couple of additional jabs before you can start. We don’t want to be taking any risks with your health, do we?”
Mercy was well used to the Foundation’s strategy of the strictest caution in all matters concerning the health of its workforce. She was already enrolled in the Hu’s regular and routine regime of six-monthly vaccinations designed to keep her safe.
She nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” she said, taking another tiny sip of her single malt and allowing its warmth to roll over her tongue and trickle slowly down her throat.
Mr. Park now seemed a little distracted, staring off across the restaurant. She followed his gaze and realised he was looking with interest at two men seated at another table. “Who are they?” she asked.
Both men were wearing identical white Versace suits, and lounging back in their seats as if nothing mattered more to them than topping up their tans. “I really don’t know,” said Mr. Park. “But I got the feeling they were watching us. Probably nothing.”
Mercy tried to look at them out of the side of her eyes. “They could almost be twins. Get those moustaches,” she said, snickering. “Classic 70’s Che Guevara droop.”
Mr. Park smiled. “Yes. Doesn’t quite go with the short back and sides, does it?” He paused briefly before adding, “But the whole ensemble goes well with their shoulder holsters.”
Rother had spent the better part of an hour see-sawing between trying to find a rational explanation for the voice in his head and, reluctantly, communicating with it.
He liked to think of himself as a rational man but the situation in which he now found himself defied anything he had ever previously considered to be rational.
Even so, he was starting to accept that perhaps interacting with his internal voice might be a more productive way to move forward than simply trying to shut it out. With that in mind, he resolved to continue the dialogue, at least until he could think of a better way to proceed.
“Good strategy,” said the voice.
Rother sighed. “Glad you approve.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the voice.
“So I gather,” thought Rother, deliberately not articulating the words.
“So you gather,” said the voice.
Rother decided to change the subject in hopes of winnowing out more about the entity within him. “I asked you before what you’d done to my face. You didn’t give me an answer.”
“Is it painful?”
“Not physically,” answered Rother, “but it’s terrifying and it makes me feel sick just to look at it.”
“You seem very sensitive about your physical appearance,” said the voice. “But then, from what we can find in your mind, that’s true of most human beings.” The voice paused briefly, as if the entity was considering its options. “Would you like me to do something about it?”
“Hell, no,” sneered Rother.
“By which you mean ‘yes’?” ventured the voice. “This language of yours is exceedingly complex and difficult to master. So much of it isn’t actually in the words. Fortunately, I’m getting more than just the words from you.”
“As I am from you,” thought Rother.
“To answer your question,” said the voice, “We haven’t deliberately done anything to alter your appearance. It’s just … you might call it a manifestation of our occupation. It’s just something that happens when I occupy a body like yours. We explore the territory. We’re getting to know you. Does that make sense to you?”
“I really don’t need to know the details,” said Rother. “I just want to be able to look in a mirror and see me. The me I’ve been all my life up til you arrived.”
“I can do that,” confirmed the voice. “Now that we come to think about it, Mr. Jong didn’t like it either. Didn’t seem to mind it as much as you do, though.”
“You can do it?”
“I can. It will take a little while, but I can restore you to your former appearance.”
Rother sighed with relief. None of what was happening to him seemed entirely real, but at least some elements of it seemed to be playing out in his favour. If it was a dream, he told himself, he would at some point wake up, but it didn’t feel like a dream. On the other hand, if it was really happening, he couldn’t imagine any better way of dealing with it than accepting it, adapting to it, at least until such time as a more productive course of action presented itself.
“So what now?” he asked.
His parasite took a little longer than it had done previously before it responded. “Mmmmmm,” it said. “Now perhaps we can begin to get to know each other a little better.”
Rother poured himself a mug of lukewarm coffee from the pot Mercy had made earlier, and settled down on the edge of the bed. His head was seething with so many questions that he found it difficult to know where to start. High on his priority list, however, was a deep-seated anxiety that he was now living with, infested by, a parasite.
“What are you?” asked Rother, hoping against hope for a straightforward comprehensible answer..
“Alive,” it replied.
Irked by the seeming glibness of its response, Rother said, “Very droll. Very droll indeed. The first time I asked you said, ‘I am you’. What’s that supposed to mean? And as for ‘alive’, well, of course you’re alive. All I’m trying to figure out is what kind of being, what sort of creature, what form of life are you?”
The entity within him took longer to respond than he had expected. “Wait,” it said eventually. “I have to find the words.”
“You have to find the words?”
“I’m sure they are all here,” it replied. “I merely have to find them, digest them, and put them into the appropriate order such that you might understand them.”
“They’re all here?” repeated Rother. “All where?”
“In your mind.”
Rother began to wonder if he was conversing with a creature which was in the act of learning English from the vocabulary in his head.
“Correct,” it confirmed. “My thoughts are not in your language.” Then, after another brief pause, “And, for that matter, neither are your thoughts. In order that we can communicate I have to filter your thoughts and mine through the structures and conventions of your language.”
Rother let out an involuntary gasp. It had, until this moment, never occurred to him that his thoughts and the language in which he expressed them might be two different things.
“Language is very clumsy,” asserted his inner entity. “It significantly hampers your ability to understand and express your thoughts. I simply think. Much faster. Much more efficient. Having to translate both of our thoughts into language will drastically slow down and inhibit our ability to communicate.”
“I see,” said Rother, although he didn’t. He was actually struggling with the enormity of the concept. He took another swig of his coffee, and swished it around in his mouth, hoping that the distraction of swirling the comfortingly warm liquid around his tongue and gums might buy him a couple of seconds in which to think. It didn’t.
“OK,” continued the inner voice, “I think I have something useful now. When I told you that I am alive, I was expressing as much as I knew – as much as I know – about what I am.”
Rother had no time to take the idea on board before his parasite raced on, asking, “If I was to inquire of you, ‘What are you?’, how would you respond? Do you know anything more of your own condition other than the fact that you are alive?”
“Uh … I don’t really know.” Even as the ideas seeped into his consciousness, he realised he was beginning to find it rather comforting to know that the entity which had invaded him evidently had limitations to its understanding, not just of the human condition, but of its own.
When it had first started talking with him, Rother had assumed, probably because of the thousands of science fiction books, tv shows and movies he had consumed throughout his life, that his invader must be some kind of higher life form, an advanced intelligence capable of communication by pure thought. Now, though, it was beginning to seem as if even pure thought might have its own limitations.
The voice started again. “So let me ask you. What are you?”
“Uh ….” He was unwilling to begin, unsure of what he could say, uncertain of what he might betray with his words. He knew, however, that he must find some way to answer the question.
“Remember,” the voice admonished him, “that I know what you are thinking. You will betray nothing with your words that will not already be known to me because of your thought processes. And if your words diverge from your thoughts, I will know that too.”
Rother felt himself being squeezed into a corner. “So what’s the point of me saying anything?”
There was no response. After a few moments, he found himself nodding slowly, as he sought out words which might answer the parasite’s question. “I suppose … I believe myself to be a human being…” He uttered a small chuckle, because he realised he was giving answers which, like his earlier assumptions, sprang from his lifelong immersion in science fiction. “I live on a planet we call Earth, which is the third planet from the star around which we orbit, and which we call the Sun.”
To his surprise, he could sense that his parasite was genuinely interested in what he was saying, paying close attention. “Very good,” said the voice. “Your words confirm much of what I have already absorbed from your memories. I find this fascinating. Superficially, you seem to know more about yourself than I do about myself.”
Rother allowed himself a tiny smile around the corners of his lips and wondered if the entity could sense his smile, and could understand what it implied.
“Oh yes indeed,” confirmed the entity. “It means that you are beginning to wonder if in some ways you might be superior to me. And you might well be.”
Rother’s smile grew wider. “OK. Try this,” he said. “My name is Douglas Darbyshire Rother. What’s yours?”
Once again, the silence between them lasted longer than he had anticipated. Finally, the entity said, “Sorry to have taken so long. I’ve been trying to get to grips with the concept of ‘name’. The word is in your mind but it swims in an ocean of subtle concepts which take time to absorb. From what I’ve grasped so far, I can tell you that I have no name, not as such. It seems that you and I have a lot to learn about each other. Perhaps we could begin with the fact that while you are a singular entity, I am rather more plural.”
“Ah.” Based on what he had seen in his mirror, Rother had been starting to wonder if his parasite might be some kind of gestalt creature, possibly a hive mind of some sort, and its use of the world ‘plural’ seemed to confirm his suspicions.
“So … you consider yourself to be Douglas Darbyshire Rother,” said his inner voice.
“You can call me Douglas if you like. Most people just call me Rother,” he said, laughing a little. “Is there anything I can call you?”
“We have no name,” it answered, “but if you would find it comforting or … convenient … to call us by a name, we would have no objection to you referring to us by a name of your choosing.”
Rother laughed again. “Usually we only get to give names to our offspring. Or our pets. Pet animals.”
The entity seemed to take a moment to think about it, before replying, “Offspring. Interesting concept. Perhaps we can return to that later. Pets. Yes, we see. We are not your pet. We are not your anything. But, at the risk being repetitive, if you would find it comforting or convenient to call us by a name, we would have no objection to you referring to us by a name of your choosing.”
“Let me think about it,” said Rother, relishing the prospect.
CHAPTER 6 : Cliff Hanger