CHAPTER 7 : Rother Names His Poison
“How about I call you Kane?”
Rother had mulled over several possibilities for naming his parasitical virus, and this was the one that had stuck.
“Why, yes,” replied Kane. “Why not?”
Although it still worried him, Rother was already becoming more accustomed to the fact that his parasite would know anything and everything that was in his memory. It would know every step he had taken along the way to choosing that name, and why he had chosen it.
Nevertheless, Rother was resolved to continue talking to his newly acquired companion as if they were two individuals indulging in a normal conversation. It seemed to him, at least for the moment, the best way to proceed. “So you don’t mind that I’ve named you after a fictional alien parasite from a movie?”
There was a familiar pause which Rother assumed might be caused by Kane getting to grips with the subtleties of the term ‘don’t mind’.
He used the pause to pick up his palm-top device and switch it on. He wanted some way of making their conversation feel a little more natural, and being able to look at his own face on a screen while they conversed seemed like it might help.
As the image appeared, Kane finally replied. “Not at all. Understandably, from your perspective, I am an alien parasite. We are occupying your body … it aligns very neatly with the idea that I am you.” Until this moment, Rother had not considered that aspect of naming it Kane, but he immediately realised it was true.
“We found several possibles among your memories. I immediately discarded Cain and Abel and Citizen Kane and understood that you were naming us after the first crew member of the starship Nostromo in Alien who was invaded by that film’s titular alien.”
“Yeah, OK,” responded Rother. “No need to labour the point.” He was annoyed with himself for not having realised the significance of Kane being a human rather than a parasite. Even so, it still seemed to fit. It was comfortable to use, and certainly preferable to the impersonal ‘you’.
Having a name by which he could refer to his parasite seemed to be a step forward, but he was becoming a little perturbed by Kane’s interchangeable usage of the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’.
Detecting Rother’s discomfort, Kane asked, “Which would you prefer? I? We? Me? Us? I’m happy with any of those, aren’t we?”
Rother couldn’t figure out whether or not that last sentence was Kane deliberately playing with his perceptions. If so, did that mean Kane possessed a sense of humour? Or was it a mind game, an attempt to put him off-balance?
“No, not that,” insisted Kane. “Quite the opposite. I’m merely trying to indicate that I really don’t differentiate between ‘I’ and ‘we’. I’ll employ whichever term you find most suitable for us.”
With their relationship evolving alarmingly fast, Rother found himself being required to take on board several concepts he had never before even imagined. He wished he could have some time to consider how to proceed but that was, of course, totally impractical. He realised he had to make a decision. “Calling yourself ‘we’ is, I realise, more accurate,” he ventured, “but in all honesty, I’d prefer you to refer to yourself as a singular entity.”
“That’s interesting,” interjected Kane. “Even as you speak, I can tell that you are thinking about bees…”
It was true. Their conversation had triggered a memory – the fact that some bee-keepers think of their swarms as single entities, because bee behaviour often suggests that they have a hive mentality, a collective identity, which enables the hundreds of thousands of individual insects to act as one.
Kane didn’t trouble to follow up that line of thought and, instead, took him somewhat unawares by asking, “Was there any specific reason why you assigned me the name of a male character?”
Rother felt a twinge of guilt as he realised he had not even considered any other gender identity for his parasite. “To be frank,” he admitted, “I didn’t really think about it.”
“You just assumed that I’m male?”
Rother realised that Kane was right. Despite living in a society where the simplistic binary division of humans into male and female was a concept which had long since passed its sell-by date, he had picked out the name Kane and undeniably thought of his parasite as male. “So … are you female?” he asked.
The jellyfish-like ripples which emanated from Kane in response to the question made Rother bite his tongue. “Sorry,” he said. “That was a stupid question.”
“No, no, no. Not stupid at all. Predictable though. Gender is one of the concepts in your mind which I have been finding the most alien, most difficult to come to grips with. You see, I have no gender. I just am.”
For a couple of decades, Rother had been struggling with the ever-changing notions of sexual identity which had swept through humanity. He had never been anything other than a male who was at ease with his maleness, but he had slowly come to terms with the idea that people could choose their own versions of sexual identity or, for that matter, a lack of sexual identity. Bisexual, asexual, pansexual, polysexual … these and many more were all states of being he had come to some understanding of, at least partly thanks to his work as a journalist in the field of psychotherapy.
Now, however, Kane was confronting him with something beyond even those definitions. “So,” he said, trying to choose his words carefully, “you’re an intelligent, self-aware entity which considers itself to have no gender?”
“Considering has nothing to do with it. I have no gender. We have no gender. We are just us.”
That was when the next bombshell hit Rother. If Kane, an entity devoid of gender, was now occupying his body, controlling his body to some extent, how might that affect his own sexuality? What might it do to the identity he had lived with for more than three decades? What could it mean for his relationship with Mercy?
“I’ve no idea,” Kane told him, still emanating jellyfish-like wobbles of glee. “Perhaps we’ll find some way to co-exist happily?”
“Nothing about that idea amuses me,” responded Rother. “I’m a human being. You’re a parasite. We’re not going to co-exist happily.”
“Parasites,” stated Kane, “have always suffered from what you, being a journalist, might very well characterise as a bad press.”
Again, Rother was impressed by Kane’s ability to grasp and use idiomatic terms, but he refused to let that distract him from what he saw as the heart of the matter. “Bad press?” he echoed. “How could there be any kind of good press for parasites?” But even as he spoke his protest, Rother knew he was wrong.
A sensation of seething ripples on the surface of liquid black tar accompanied Kane’s words as he moved to defend his kind. It was the first time Rother had detected anger in his unwelcome occupant. “You know you are wrong,” said Kane. “It’s right there in your head. You have known for many years that when tapeworms and roundworms take up residence in a body, they provide a boost to their host’s immune system.”
Rother had indeed learned exactly those facts in science classes at school. It was also a subject that had come up more than once in conversations with Mercy about her work.
He was about to concede the point, but Kane wasn’t ready to stop. “So when a creature like you is infected with a parasite, your immune system is more active than usual, and becomes better able to cope with other foreign bodies such as pollen or bacteria.”
Rother knew this too. Even more uncomfortably he remembered having read that scientists had started investigating a less well-documented theory that parasitic worms might be able to improve the symptoms of or even cure debilitating diseases in humans. He attempted to butt into Kane’s flow. “OK. OK. I get it. You’re right, but I don’t have to like it.”
Kane paused. “Thank you,” he said, then resumed, “perhaps it might prove beneficial to both of us if you could learn to think of me in another way.”
“What way might that be?” Rother very much resented having so convincingly lost his argument with Kane, but he was gracious enough to be willing to consider whatever his parasite was suggesting.
“Think of me as a symbiote,” said Kane.
Rother turned the suggestion around in his head. “A symbiote,” he said, wondering if the difference was more than mere semantics.
“Of course it’s more than that,” insisted Kane whose liquid black tar ripples were now subsiding. “I was created to be a parasitic virus and, strictly speaking, I could still be defined as a parasite. But since acquiring self-awareness and intelligence through my interaction with Mr. Jong, I have acquired characteristics which would be equally valid for a symbiote.”
Rother was still not totally convinced. “Such as?”
“Parasites have traditionally been thought of as deriving benefits from their hosts, while giving nothing in return,” pointed out Kane. “A symbiote, however, lives in partnership with another being and both creatures derive benefits from the relationship. Think about Cymothoa exigua…”
Rother shook his head. “Really? I’d rather not.”
“But you already are, aren’t you?” observed Kane. “It’s a louse which eats the tongues of the fish it infests…”
“Yes, I know,” conceded Rother. “It then substitutes itself for the fish’s tongue, thereby deriving nutrients beneficial to both of them.”
“Don’t worry, Rother,” said Kane. “I’m not going to eat your tongue.”
“But you have already turned my entire body into a breeding ground for your voracious little sluggy constituent parts,” objected Rother.
Returning his gaze to his image on the palm-top screen, Rother was alarmed to see that there were still a great many tiny heads extruding from his skin.
“Fewer than before, I assure you,” Kane told him. “I’m working on it. Now that I know how much your appearance disturbs you I am restoring your features to something you’ll find more normal.”
It was also still a matter of grave concern that Kane seemed to have easy access to everything that went on in his mind. Unfortunately, Rother felt there was, at least for the moment, nothing he could do about that. He would simply have to learn to live with it.
“While we’re on the subject of your physicality,” said Kane, “I know you realise that this body of yours has been functioning very badly.”
Rother, who had always exercised regularly and stuck rigidly to a strictly-controlled diet, was quite happy with his body, and could only think of one thing to which Kane might be referring. “You mean my diabetes?”
“Indeed. The organs you call your pancreas and your liver have not functioned well for many years…”
“How do you know these things?” demanded Rother.
“I am you,” replied Kane.
“I’ve been me for much longer than you have, and I didn’t know stuff like that until my doctor told me about it after I got sick.”
“Point taken,” said Kane. “Let me try to keep this simple for you. I am a much more self-aware version of you. In order to exist, I need to be able to scrutinise and analyse the bodies I inhabit.”
Rother felt as if he was being lectured by a schoolmaster and he didn’t like it. “So you’ll know I’m overdue for my next shot of insulin, then?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Of course I am,” insisted Rother. “I’ve been doing this for half my life. I know when I need a shot.”
“Not any more.”
The certainty in Kane’s remark stunned Rother into silence until he eventually managed to ask, “What are you telling me?”
“I’m telling you that I have fixed your pancreas and your liver. Regenerated them. They’re both functioning perfectly again.”
Rother frantically unbuttoned his shirt and pressed his hand over his abdomen, onto the spot where he knew his pancreas was located. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you are no longer a diabetic,” explained Kane with not a trace of emotion in his tone.
“No. That’s impossible.” Rother was now unconsciously massaging his abdomen with a gentle circular movement. “I don’t believe it.”
“Whether or not you believe it is not the issue,” stated Kane. “It is done. And I think you’ll just have to get used to thinking of me as a symbiote.”
Rother remained dumbstruck. Then, after a slight pause, Kane executed a breathtakingly magnificent loop back to an earlier point in their conversation. “So it is agreed,” he said, as if no medical miracle had intervened. “We will henceforth refer to ourself as ‘I’ or ‘me’. Yes?”
CHAPTER 7 : Rother Names His Poison