CHAPTER 9 : Coffee, Biscuits And The Nature Of God
Looking out over the Financial District from Mr. Kintsugi’s office at the Hu Foundation HQ, Mercy could see evening lights beginning to wink on beyond the Transamerica Pyramid. She noted too that some of the vehicles coming back to the city across the Oakland Bay Bridge were starting to use their headlights.
“I realise,” said Kintsugi, “that you’ll be anxious to get back to Rother, but I can’t let you do that without first clarifying the situation for you.”
To Mercy, the phrase “clarifying the situation” sounded uncomfortably like a synonym for gaslighting. The next words she expected to hear from Mr. Kintsugi would be bare-faced lies designed to confuse her even more than she already was.
“To be absolutely honest,” continued Kintsugi, and now the alarm bells in Mercy’s head were drowning out everything else, “what you have revealed to me about Rother is terrifying.” Kintsugi stopped, and drew a deep breath before carrying on. “I really do not know what to tell you.”
This was not at all what she had been expecting. Kintsugi seemed genuinely at a loss to know what to say. She had known something was seriously awry when Mr. Park had clammed up on her earlier in the day, but she had assumed that Kintsugi would be in a position either to be more forthcoming or, at least, to come up with a credible cover story.
“What is it?” she asked anxiously. “What’s going on?”
Mr. Kintsugi stood up, then immediately sat down again, and leaned across the desk towards her. “Frankly,” he said, firmly massaging his brow between thumb and forefinger, “I have no idea.”
Mercy could see that Kintsugi was out of his depth. “You have no idea?” She sat upright in her seat and raised her voice a couple of notches. “You? What about me? I’m the one in the middle of all this and, as far as I can see, it’s some kind of total Hu Foundation snafu. That’s all I can imagine. That’s what I’m thinking. It’s your fuckup but it’s me and Doogle that are caught in the middle of it.”
Mr. Kintsugi was now holding his head in his hands. “Miss Yoo,” he said, without looking up from the desk, “you are absolutely correct and we’re going to do whatever it takes to put it right, I promise you. I swear it. But we’re in territory the like of which none of us have ever experienced before. It’s a nightmare. I can’t think of any better way to describe it.”
Mercy leaned across the desk, grabbed one of his arms and shook it. “Look at me!” she shouted. “Just look at me! Don’t look at your desk when you’re speaking to me.”
He looked up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
To her astonishment, Mercy realised she was actually more in control than Kintsugi. “OK,” she said. “OK. Well, that’s OK.” She was playing for time, hoping that Mr. Kintsugi might recover his composure at least enough for the two of them to have a rational conversation about their joint nightmare. “Let’s go back to the bit where you were going to clarify the situation for me. Can we at least do that? And I could murder a cup of coffee.”
Kintsugi exhaled, nodded at Mercy and buzzed through to his PA. “Can we get a pot of Blue Mountain in here? No, no, not that. Make it the kopi luwak, but not too strong.”
“And some biscuits,” added Mercy.
“Yes,” said Mr. Kintsugi. “And some biscuits. Those British ones with milk chocolate on one side.”
It didn’t take long for the refreshments to arrive but even by then Kintsugi had launched into an explanation that exceeded Mercy’s worst imaginings.
“It’s like this …” he began. According to Mr. Kintsugi, The Foundation had been ticking along nicely in the world of big pharma for several decades, not up there among the Top 5 players, but consistently delivering multi-million dollar results annually.
That was when the Covid-19 pandemic had hit and, as the global death toll rocketed, and the world-wide index of human misery ran out of control, six of the biggest corporations in the coronavirus market generated $266bn between them for the twelve-month, and racked up profits totalling $46bn. Some of the bigger companies became more wealthy than rich countries including New Zealand and Hungary, while others were raking in revenues exceeding those of oil-rich nations such as Kuwait or Malaysia.
“Needless to say,” stated Kintsugi, “we couldn’t ignore those sorts of statistics. That’s when the pressure started to mount.”
Rather than attempting to compete with the bigger players by creating its own Covid-19 vaccine, The Hu Foundation had initiated an ambitious plan to get a step ahead of variants such as the India-originated Delta and the South Africa-originated Omicron. Recognising that The Foundation was outgunned by the mega-budgets of the biggest players, they chose a radically different strategy.
“It was a gamble, but we felt that if we could develop some kind of universal vaccine, we’d be ahead of the field. We wanted to create something which could eliminate not just Covid-19 but any subsequent virus or variant that came into being.”
Mercy was at a loss to understand the concept. “A universal vaccine?” she asked. “What would that be? How would that work?”
Mr. Kintsugi seemed a shade more in control now, calmer than he had been when he had started his explanation. “Believe me, Mercy, when we started exploring the possibilities, we simply didn’t know. Various options presented themselves, and we started looking into several of them before the idea of a self-aware, intelligent virus started to look like a feasible direction, maybe even the best.”
Even though it chimed with what Mr Park had told her at Cliff House, this explanation did not fill Mercy with confidence. In the few weeks she had now worked on the project with Mr. Jong Min-Jun, he had restricted her functions to lower level activities which did not give her much access to the more sensitive details of the project. “An intelligent virus? Some kind of living entity? You’re talking about something with its own brain? Wouldn’t that be incredibly dangerous?”
“Yes indeed,” he agreed. “That’s why we spent as much time and resources on how to control such a virus as we did on its development. It had to be something which could identify any new threat, response to it, and evolve itself to be effective against those threats. At the same time, it must not pose a threat by its very existence.”
Mercy began to feel she was spiralling down into a deep dark chasm where the Foundation’s miracle cure had the potential to become more dangerous than the viruses it was being created to eliminate. “Surely not,” she interjected. “That sounds like classic mad scientist stuff.”
Kintsugi shook his head. “To you and me, perhaps, but to the team Mr. Jong Min-Jun was supervising, the team charged with developing our new strategy, it made sense. We allowed ourselves to be led by the science, we trusted what these people told us. We believed that they knew better than us. They were research scientists, we were administrators and businessmen.”
“It sounds to me like you were blinded by the science,” sighed Mercy.
Kintsugi nodded. “Given the events which have unfolded since, I find myself forced to agree with you. Maybe if you’d been on the team …”
She laughed. She knew that it was only hindsight which had allowed her to assess the situation so accurately. “No,” she said. “I’m sure that if I’d been around I’d have been blinded too.”
As the evening grew darker outside Kintsugi’s office, he revealed more, explaining that once the Foundation had its project – The Acceleration Project – well underway, they learned that their competitor, the NanoVit Knowledge Institute, was pursuing an equally left-field strategy.
“I’m sure you can imagine what happened next,” said Mr. Kintsugi.
Mercy remained silent. She could all too easily visualise the knee-jerk responses of the bosses of the Foundation and NanoVit. Inevitably, the two corporations entered into a no-holds-barred race to be the first to develop a universal virus solution. At that point common sense and calm reflection would have gone out of the window. Winning would become all that mattered.
“To cut a long and complicated saga short,” said Mr. Kintsugi, “by the time you and Mr. Park had your lunch at Cliff House, we had become desperate and reckless.”
He explained that already, while Mercy and Mr. Park had been clinking their glasses of Yamazaki together, and discussing her new contract, Mr. Jong was already dead. He had become infected with the Acceleration virus and, despite the Foundation’s best efforts to save his life under strict quarantine, he had died.
“Jesus,” said Mercy. “He was already dead?”
“I’m ashamed to have to admit to it but, yes, that’s the truth.”
A horrifying realisation burst into her head, causing the rest of what Kintsugi was saying to fade into insignificance. She could not stop herself from speaking her thoughts aloud. “You bastard,” she shouted at him. “You absolute bastard. Those new booster shots I was given when I joined the team. They weren’t booster shots at all, were they?”
Rother was finding it hard to reconcile the mind-boggling surrealism of the conversation he and Kane were sharing with the decidedly utilitarian shabby-chic surroundings of his home. Wherever he looked in their Valencia Street apartment he could see furnishings and artefacts which had seemed stylish when he and Mercy had bought them, but which now appeared drearily banal.
“Don’t fret about it,” said Kane. “None of that matters to me. I have nothing with which to compare it. It’s just content, just stuff. I think those are fairly accurate concepts.”
Just a few moments earlier, Kane had seemed taken aback, even disturbed, by the term ‘Good God’, and Rother, still scrabbling to get to grips with what was happening to him, decided this might open up an avenue worth exploring.
“Did something trouble you about my use of the word ‘God’?” he asked.
“As with much of your language,” stated Kane, “I have no direct equivalent of ‘God’ in my consciousness. I’m sure you will already know I have been searching through your memories in an effort to grasp something of the concept, but so much of what I have found is contradictory and confusing.”
Rother couldn’t suppress a cynical laugh. “Nothing unusual in that,” he said. “It’s a concept my species has been trying to get to grips with for centuries. If you’d like, I can try to give you a brief explanation of the concept of ‘God’ insofar as I understand it myself. Would you like me to do that?”
“Please do,” said Kane. “I’m enjoying this process of learning about you and your world. It feels so fresh.”
Even as they spoke, Rother was marvelling at how well they were both coping with the experience of sharing their two minds within the confines of his body.
“Oh, that?” said Kane. “I’m helping you to remain calm. I’ve learned that it’s a simple matter of controlling the flow of substances through your brain, accelerating or slowing down their release, to help you to relax. You call these substances noradrenaline, serotonin…”
“You’ve learned to do that in the couple of hours you’ve been inside me? You’re controlling the neurotransmitters in my brain?”
Kane’s response, “Of course. It’s what I do,” seemed tinged with a certain amount of bemusement, which manifested itself in Rother’s consciousness as a slowly modulating electronic drone. “Isn’t that a useful phrase? ‘It’s what I do.’”
“So what you do is control the functions of my body?” asked Rother.
Kane seemed to ponder the question for a moment, then modified the statement. “It’s not everything I do, of course. But, yes, it is something I can do.”
Immediately Rother began to wonder if anything he was now doing was entirely under his own control.
“Oh, yes,” clarified Kane. “Otherwise I’d just be talking to myself, wouldn’t I? It really helps our dialogue if you remain in control of your own thoughts, your ideas, your memories.”
“But why don’t you just take whatever you want from my memories. How could I stop you?”
A sensation which Rother perceived as similar to the clucking of a contented hen incubating its eggs flowed out of Kane. “You couldn’t stop me. But, trust me, it’s better, more satisfactory, more satisfying, more efficient, to dialogue with you rather than just to strip your memories.”
Again, Rother derived some comfort from the notion that Kane needed him in some way, but for how long? He decided to try to edge their conversation back towards ‘God’, in the hope that it might give him some insights into exactly what sort of being Kane was.
“So, getting back to ‘God'”, said Rother. “It’s an entity called by many names – The Creator, Lord Of Hosts, Elohim, El-Shaddai, Yahweh, Jehovah, Adonai. Actually, I suppose I should say, before I go any further, that I personally don’t believe in God…”
Kane interrupted, “Yes, you do.”
Rother closed his eyes tight, furrowed his brow and shook his head several times. “No, I do not.”
“Whatever,” replied Kane. ‘ That’s another very useful term, don’t you think?”
“For the moment,” said Rother, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t keep butting in while I’m trying to explain ‘God’ to you. It’s a very complicated concept and it’s bad enough trying to put it into words without you stopping me before I even get started.”
“Agreed,” said Kane.
“So, whether or not I believe in any kind of ‘God’ of whatever stripe, the basic idea, which millions of people seem to accept, is that ‘God’ is an eternal, universal entity which created not just this world, but the entire universe. For most believers, this ‘God’ created not just the material of the universe, but also all of its living inhabitants. Beyond that, concepts of ‘God’ start to splinter. Some people believe in a caring ‘God’ which eternally looks after everything it has created.”
By this point, Rother could sense a feeling coming from Kane, akin to a viscous liquid beginning to bubble over. He assumed this to be an indication that Kane was having difficulty reconciling what was being said. He decided to continue regardless.
“Others conceive of ‘God’ as being more like a cosmic scientist who whipped up the universe and set it going, but then lost interest and now no longer cares about the fate of its inhabitants. Beyond these two versions of ‘God’ there are hundreds, probably thousands, of other variations. Are you still with me?”
Kane’s bubbling liquid sensations seemed to have calmed down somewhat, as he said, “To me a disinterested ‘God’ seems more logical, if such a thing exists at all, but really we’re speaking about something on such a vast scale that it’s hard to grasp on any level.”
Rother ploughed on. “So, when I said, ‘Good God,’ it was … well, what I meant was … What I actually meant was …” He juddered to a stop, realising that, if he really tried to analyse it, he had no idea whatsoever of what he had meant by those words.
Kane was evidently amused by his discomfiture. The amusement manifested itself as a sensation not unlike the wobbling of a jelly. “You see, then, what I mean about your language being clumsy?” he asked. “You utter words whose meaning you do not understand, and yet you utter them with deep conviction.”
Rother nodded. “Yes, of course,” he acknowledged. “You’re absolutely right.” At any other time, this would have been a mind-boggling realisation for him but, in the context of a mental conversation with a symbiotic virus occupying his body and mind, it was simply one more thing to file away and think about later.
Still keen to learn more, Rother switched to another potentially illuminating topic. “You told me you were made rather than born,” he began. “Do you know where you were made?”
With no hesitation, Kane replied, “Here.”
“Here?” queried Rother. “That’s a bit ambiguous. Here could mean you were born in my head, or it could mean you were made in this room, or even created in San Francisco or manufactured on this planet, or …” He was running out of possibles, but he added just one more. “Born in this universe.”
The feeling that now came from Kane was warm and happy, like the sound of a puppy having a good dream, but it quickly resolved into identifiable words. “I was made in San Francisco, in Lab 7c at The Hu Foundation.”
These words arrived in Rother’s head like a jolt of electricity. “The Hu Foundation?” he asked, looking for confirmation that he had heard correctly.
“Precisely,” confirmed Kane.
“You mean where Mercy works?” Rother was aware that his voice had risen up a register. He was also realising that Kane would be, at this moment, formulating some sort of image of Mercy from his memories.
“Mercy,” said Kane. “Yes, I know Mercy. Interesting. She looks the same to you as she did to me.”
Rother’s mind was reeling. “What do you mean you ‘know’ Mercy?”
“Well,” said Kane, “strictly speaking, I ‘knew’ Mercy. She brought me here to you.”
“She brought you here?”
“Indeed,” confirmed Kane. “I was joined up into her at the Hu Foundation, after the one I was in before, Mr. Jong Min-Jun, ceased to be.”
“You … you’re saying that Mr. Jong is dead?” queried Rother. “I knew he hadn’t been at the Foundation for a couple of weeks, but Mercy told me he had the flu.”
“That may well have been her understanding,” said Kane. “But I can assure you he is deceased now and has been in that state of non-existence for some time.”
Shocking though this information was, Rother was much more interested in how Mercy had become infected by Kane. “You said you were ‘joined up into’ Mercy at the Foundation? What does that mean?”
“Some of me was removed from Mr. Jong very soon after he ceased to exist.”
Instinctively, Rother clamped his right hand over his lips but immediately realised that Kane was not using his mouth to communicate with. Somewhat embarrassed, he pulled his hand away again, and said, “Slow down, Kane. This may all make sense to you but I’m finding it very hard to follow. You said some of you was removed from Mr. Jong Min-Jun. What the hell does that mean?”
The information Rother needed to fill in the blanks had to be teased out of Kane in small bits and pieces because, although the symbiote had had access to Mr. Jong’s thoughts and memories, it had no way of knowing which pieces of information would be most relevant to Rother. Nevertheless, Kane demonstrated considerable patience in trying to help his host understand.
Gradually, Rother was able to glean that Mr. Jong had somehow, entirely accidentally, become infected while carrying out sabotage for the Foundation’s competitor company Nanovit. Specifically, Mr. Jong had been trying to destroy Kane with the aim of hampering the Foundation’s Acceleration Project.
“At that point,” explained Kane, “as I have since learned, I existed only inside a transparent container located within a secure refrigerated unit inside an ultra-hygienic sealed room.”
Rother was nodding his head, certain that he knew what was coming next.
“Correct,” confirmed Kane. “Mr. Jong, in reaching towards my container, tipped it over and broke it. In his anxiety, he hastily tried to rectify his mistake, but in so doing he cut open the material of his protective coverall.”
Rother already had the picture. “So you were able to enter Mr. Jong’s body through the opening?”
“Absolutely!” Kane seemed delighted that Rother had understood. His delight was underlined by a sensation resembling a vigorous scalp massage. “Not only that but, having been inert up until that moment, Mr. Jong’s consciousness provided me with self-awareness. His clumsy mistake had inadvertently achieved the Foundation’s primary objective – the creation of an intelligent, self-aware virus.”
CHAPTER 9 : Coffee, Biscuits And The Nature Of God