CHAPTER 8 : Dispatched
“Now I remember,” sighed Elfin, stifling a yawn. “You’re not actually very good at that, are you?”
Smiddy felt utterly deflated. The experience had been exactly as he remembered it from the first time. The sublimely beautiful Elfin had lain there beneath him doing nothing whatsoever during an interminable fifteen minutes. For eir, sex involved eir partner doing all of the work, providing all of the stimulation, while ey waited to become aroused.
This was not a role Smiddy could enjoy playing. His preference was for women who took part; women who got involved; who had some idea of what they wanted from a man, and of what a man might want from them. But then, of course, Elfin was not exactly a woman.
His former wife, Louise, had been a good example of the kind of woman he preferred and it was only by thinking about her that he had managed to simulate sexual arousal with Elfin.
“If ever I should ask again,” Elfin rebuked him, “do not humour me. Remind me that we have fucked before and that the experience was far from satisfactory. And that it was entirely your fault. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” replied Smiddy.
Elfin was running the tip of an index finger down over the surfaces of the left-hand row of the half-inch steel hex bolts on eir neck. “Now,” ey said, “we need to devise a strategy whereby we can establish exactly what Mr. Jong Min-Jun had achieved. What do you propose?”
“Well,” began Smiddy, “All we know for certain from his reports is that he somehow successfully contaminated the Foundation’s test culture. Regrettably, his reports had to be, by their nature, brief and somewhat minimally detailed. He could not risk the possibility that his electronic communications were being monitored by his superiors at Hu. So we were waiting for an opportunity to speak with him directly, in a secure location, at which time we could have acquired more specifics.”
“Assuming he’s dead,” interrupted Elfin, “that’s not going to happen, is it?”
“Correct,” he confirmed. “We may have to locate the contaminated culture itself…”
“Should I put that in hand?” he inquired.
“Why do you need to ask? Just do it. You’ll need a couple of dispatch drivers,” ey snapped back. Then, after glaring at him for a few disquieting moments, ey said, “No. Don’t do that. It’s best if I organise it myself. I’ll let you know how to proceed.” Dropping eir gaze, ey sent a dismissive nod in his direction, indicating that he should leave.
“Shouldn’t we be considering how all of this might impact on our Viral Expedient?” persisted Smiddy. “Do we try to speed up, slow down? And, if Mr. Jong Min-Jun turns out to be still alive, should we attempt to get him on our side or…”
Elfin sneered at him. “Do you understand nothing, Smiddy? Locating the contaminated culture could very likely involve also locating Mr. Jong. That’s why you’ll need dispatch drivers. They will be under your supervision. They will be your responsibility.”
“Of course,” agreed Smiddy. “Of course.”
This time, Elfin exaggerated eir dismissive nod to make it abundantly clear that he should leave. Ey lowered eir eyelids again while he was still looking in eir direction.
After he had left the room, Elfin distractedly opened the locket at eir neck, and touched the small white feather concealed inside. Then ey lightly tapped the top of the middle nut on the right hand side of eir neck, and spoke into the tiny aperture which had now appeared on the back of eir hand. “Dispatch,” ey said.
The skin around the aperture glowed slightly as the communication was achieved. “Dispatch Division, Carver speaking,” came the response.
“Carver,” said Elfin, “I need a couple of dispatch drivers. Who’s available?”
“It’s a busy time,” began Carver.
“I don’t need to know your problems,” spat Elfin. “Make a couple of you best drivers available.”
The sound of Carver’s ears pricking up was almost audible over the com-link, as he responded. “I can get you Peem and Haggis.”
“Send them up immediately,” ey ordered, cutting off the communication before Carver could say another word.
Ey looked down at her palm-held screen to see what else was on eir schedule for today. Apart from a late afternoon briefing about the progress of Nanovit’s proposed investment in The Shoppingness, an exclusive retail outlet on Union Square, the afternoon looked reasonably free.
There was, ey thought, perhaps one other matter that ey could follow up before the dispatch drivers arrived. Ey tapped the middle nut on the right hand side of her neck and said, “Gregor Challis.” To eir annoyance, Challis did not pick up, although ey was almost certain he was in his lab. “Challis,” ey said, “what progress has there been on my Rob1ns?” Ey broke the connection feeling aggrieved.
Barely ten minutes passed before Peem and Haggis were standing to attention in front of Elfin. They were, ey knew, far from Nanovit’s ‘best’ Dispatch Drivers. If anything, they were barely above mediocre. Ey made a mental note to castigate Carver on that account later, but the pressing need at this moment was to get the action underway.
Ey brought them up to speed and made it clear that they would be under Smiddy’s command until the operation was completed. “Oh, one last detail,” ey added. “If Smiddy doesn’t return, I really won’t be even remotely perturbed. He’s an utterly useless fuck. His brains are in his ass.”
Peem smiled, delighted by the possibility of dispatching a senior exec. Haggis, unquestionably the brighter of the pair, displayed no trace of emotion. For him, this was nothing more than another assignment and, well aware of Elfin’s fondness for cynical and ironic comments, he read nothing of any significance into eir final observations.
Rother was still not entirely convinced that Kane had cured his diabetic condition but, with so many unknowns to address, he realised he had little choice but to carry on communicating with the symbiote in the hope of clarifying at least some of the issues that were competing for his attention.
As things stood, it seemed the two of them were going to have to learn to co-exist, so they had to continue talking.
He had been astonished by the way in which Kane had switched seamlessly from curing his diabetes to deciding which personal pronouns might be most appropriate form of address, as if the the two matters were of equal importance.
Rother had also been struck again by the speed with which Kane seemed to be picking up English language words, phrases and idioms. When Kane had said, “We will henceforth refer to ourself as ‘I’ or ‘me’. Yes?”, the word ‘henceforth’ had jumped out as a very recent addition to the symbiote’s vocabulary, and the use of that final interrogative ‘Yes?’ suggested that it was mastering the art of conversation by leaps and bounds.
“Uhhh, yes,” confirmed Rother. “‘I’ or ‘me’. I think I’d prefer that.”
“Even though it is, to your way of thinking, less accurate,” inquired Kane.
“I think so.” In the back of Rother’s mind, however, he was a little concerned that the use of singular pronouns might tend to obscure the reality of precisely what it was that had invaded him. He realised that even this niggling little concern would be known to Kane but he was beginning to find that sharing his mind was becoming a less alarming idea than it had first seemed.
“So, Douglas,” said Kane, deftly changing the subject, “you were starting to tell me a little about yourself. I assume there’s more?”
Rother was hesitant, unsure of how to proceed. Was Kane simply curious, or was there some unspoken agenda? Was it fishing for information that might make its host vulnerable?
“Just curious,” confirmed Kane, reminding Rother yet again that all of his thoughts were available to the virus. “By the way, you’ve allocated me a male name, but you still seem to be thinking of me as ‘it’. You might want to reconsider that.”
Rother laughed. “I’ll work on it. May take a while though. Meanwhile, tell me this. If you can read my thoughts, why do you need me to tell you anything?”
The answer came instantly. “When you speak, as is also the case when you think consciously, your thoughts are gathered together in a logical sequence which is relatively easy for me to comprehend. If I simply rootle … isn’t that a nice word? … rootle around in your mind there’s far too much information, too much noise, to process easily.”
It made sense, or at least as much sense as any aspect of this outlandish situation did. Rother decided, for the moment, to accept the explanation. “OK,” he said. “So you’d like to know a little more about me. That’s fine, but let’s establish some ground rules.”
“Whyever not?” replied Kane who, Rother noted with interest, seemed to have no difficulty with the term ‘ground rules’. “What rules would you suggest?”
“How about ….” Realising he hadn’t actually formulated any rules yet, Rother hesitated, but remembering the shock of Kane’s gender revelation quickly spurred him to come up with one obvious possibility. “Why don’t we take turn about? I tell you something about me, and then you tell me something about you.”
To his surprise, he felt something that resembled a glow of happiness, or perhaps it was contentment, emanating from Kane. It was not unlike the feeling he got when he heard a cat purring. It felt as though the two of them were slowly approaching some kind of understanding of each other.
“Right then,” he said. “I’ll start.” The first thing he wanted to say popped into his head unbidden. “I’m 32 years old.”
The purring sensation dissolved into something more akin to the slow and deliberate riffling of a pack of cards, from which he concluded that Kane was having to get to grips with his words. After a few moments, Kane confirmed, “I almost understand ’32 years’. It is a measurement of something … something based on the number of revolutions of your planet around your sun. ‘Old’ is a little harder to refine to one specific meaning.”
To his surprise, Rother found himself sympathising with Kane. The conversation was not unlike speaking with a bright, interested child. He tried to clarify his meaning. “What if I say I have existed on Earth for about 32 revolutions of this planet around our Sun? Does that help?”
Kane seemed a shade happier with that explanation. “Yes. So ‘old’ is a measurement of the duration of your existence, based on the number of solar revolutions you have experienced.”
Rother had to think about it before he replied, “In this instance, yes. That’s about right.”
The purring started up again. Kane seemed contented, at least for the moment. Pleased that he seemed to have communicated something to Kane, Rother asked, “How about you? How old are you?”
The purring evaporated again, and was replaced by the slow card riffle, which Rother felt represented Kane in a state of cogitation. Eventually his symbiote responded.
“If my calculations, based on what I can glean from your explanation, are correct, I am slightly less than one quarter of one year old.”
Rother not only felt his jaw drop but also saw it on the palm-top screen. Kane detected it too and observed. “Your mouth has fallen open. Are you not in control of it?”
Taking a deep breath, Rother responded, “I think you’ll find that humans are almost never fully in control of what their mouths are doing.” He paused and took a moment to try to get to grips with what Kane had just said, then asked, “Did you really just tell me that you are about three months old?”
“Indeed,” replied Kane.
“You can’t be,” gasped Rother. “That just can’t be … I mean … it’s not possible.”
“I believe it to be entirely possible,” stated Kane. “As far as I can deduce I was created, you might say manufactured, or you might say I came into existence, about three months ago.”
“Yes. Made. Is that a better expression? I was made about three months ago.”
Rother was alarmed to see on the screen that his face now appeared thoroughly confused, disoriented and …”
“Gobsmacked,” said Kane. “That’s another good word, isn’t it? I like that one. Maybe language does have some benefits after all.” The remark confirmed to Rother that Kane was actively enjoying the process of learning English.
“You were made?” asked Rother.
“And you were not?”
“Of course not. I was born.”
“Ah! So there’s a difference,” concluded Kane. Rother could not avoid a sensation that the symbiote felt some sense of satisfaction at having reached this conclusion. “Give me a minute…”
Wondering what he might say that could help, Rother attempted to point Kane in the right direction. “I was the, ah, organic offspring of my parents. I was the end result of a biological process common to every human being.” As soon as he reached the end of the sentence, Rother realised that if Kane had truly been manufactured, he would probably have to seek out the meaning of a term like ‘parents’, and he remembered how interested the symbiote had seemed earlier in the word ‘offspring’.
Kane took only a few scant moments, however, to declare himself reasonably au fait with the meaning of what Rother had said. “I get it,” he stated. “You were born, but I was made. The differences are subtle, but I can distinguish between the two methods of coming into existence.”
Rother peered intently at his face on the palm-top screen. Although his skin was now clearly returning to its original state, there were still several tiny heads poking through his cheeks, forehead and neck, most of them wriggling obscenely. Despite this, the look of confusion on his features was unmistakeable. What was less clear to him was whether that confusion was entirely his, or whether any of it was now derived from his symbiote.
“Good God,” he whispered, overcome by a melancholic gloom engendered by his realisation that he might be becoming unable to fully distinguish between himself and Kane.
Kane repeated Rother’s exclamation. “Good God?” Then he added, “Oh. Now you really have lost me.” Rother had never before experienced a sigh of the utmost despair rising from deep within his brain, but he was absolutely certain that Kane had just produced one.
CHAPTER 8 : Dispatched