CHAPTER 1 – The Cheek Of It
Rother did not notice that the first of them had burst through the skin of his right cheek, slightly below the faded scar under his left eye, until a moment or two after he sliced off its head with his twin-bladed shaving razor.
The pain was brief but so intense that it made him drop the razor onto the shelf beneath the mirror where it dislodged his blister pack of microfine syringes and the bottle of insulin beside it. He cursed under his breath but managed to bring his left hand up fast enough to stop them falling off the end.
He leaned forward to stare into the bathroom mirror, and raised the middle finger of his right hand to explore the tiny crater he had inadvertently opened up in his face.
Even though he had been feeling peculiar for some weeks, feeling as if something he could not define was going on inside his body, he did not immediately connect the rupture in his skin with that feeling.
The tip of his finger came into contact with something wet, something slimy. “Pus?” he wondered, surmising that perhaps he had whipped off the top of a whitehead.
“Say what?” shouted Mercy from the bedroom.
“Nothing,” he responded automatically, but her question did set in train a series of thoughts and notions that were just beginning to crystallise around the fringes of his pre-coffee, toast and English marmalade consciousness.
Wiping the pale slime onto the underside of the upturned button-down collar of his two-tone grey shirt, he leaned even closer to the mirror and pressed the skin at the side of the hole in his cheek in an attempt to squeeze out a little more pus.
Without even thinking about it, he shifted his gaze briefly away from his finger tip, glancing down towards the sink, and then immediately back up again, before registering consciously that he had noticed a tiny movement on the enamel rim of the basin.
“You going to make breakfast today?” called Mercy. “Or is it me this morning.”
He did not immediately respond. He had now returned his gaze back down towards the sink and could quite plainly see something wriggling on the avocado-coloured rim.
“What the hell?” he asked under his breath, moving his face down closer to the little squirming entity. He felt as if, in its final moments of existence, a tiny creature was staring up at him, imploringly. “Nah!” he muttered, dismissing the lunatic notion.
To be sure, it was already moving more slowly.
Peering back up at his half-shaven reflection, he realised that a larger droplet of pus had oozed out of the hole than he had imagined, significantly more than might be explained by a sliced whitehead. Instinctively, he pulled a tissue from the box by the bath and wiped it away.
“You or me, Doogle?” shouted Mercy.
“You or me what?” he responded distractedly.
He pulled himself together and shouted back, “You, I think. I did it yesterday, didn’t I?” As he spoke, he stared, first at the damp tissue, then down again at the still wriggling thing on the rim of the sink.
“Shit,” replied Mercy. “And there was me thinking I could lie here on my back completely naked for another five or ten minutes. Or longer.”
Hearing those words on any other morning, Rother would have been splashing his face to remove any remaining shaving cream and heading for the bedroom within nanoseconds. Instead, he heard himself saying, “Yeah. OK. Whatever.”
Mercy laughed out loud.
Against his own better judgement, he positioned the tip of his finger next to the now barely moving thing and scooped it up to get a closer look. It was now plain to see that the tiny entity had a chunky, head-like part attached to its pale, translucent worm-like body. He thought he could make out rudimentary black eyes, two snail-like antennae and a dark, circular mouth part. “What the fuck are you?” he asked it.
That was when everything started to unravel because of a thought which appeared unbidden inside his head.
“I’m you,” it replied.
CHAPTER 2 : THAT OLD LUMINOUS LOOK AGAIN
“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.
CHAPTER 3 : Plastered
“It was all a dream,” thought Rother.
Startled back from sleep to sudden wakefulness, he had felt a flood of relief surging into his head and chest for all of half a second. “Just a dream.” he said aloud, hoping to convince himself.
Almost immediately, however, he caught sight of his reflection in Mercy’s make-up mirror. He could see that several tiny white-headed critters were now poking out through the skin of his face and neck, all of them writhing slowly.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was certain that he could feel something, some things, moving through his veins, as though they were exploring the interior of his body. A nervous shiver ran throughout his flesh.
He was unsure of how long he had been asleep. Maybe a couple of hours he guessed. What other changes, he asked himself, might have taken place in that time?
Slumping back down onto the pillow, he raised his hands in front of his face. “Fuck!” he whispered. “Oh, shit.” The backs of both hands were now infested. Rother slowly turned his hands around and noticed that there were none of the tiny creatures on his palms or on the insides of his fingers.
“Yes,” said the voice in his head, the voice of his infestation. “I thought you might still have some use for those areas, so I’ve left them alone for the moment.”
Rother tried to think chronologically back through the events of recent hours. Much of it was already a blur, but he could recall sticking a waterproof plaster over the first of the punctures in his face. He wished it hadn’t been a Little Mermaid promo special edition, but those were Mercy’s favourites. He had made a swift mental note to get some plain ones on his next shopping trip, then wondered if there could ever be another shopping trip.
What should he tell Mercy? What might she believe? Should he show her what was under the plaster? How could he possibly explain about the tiny head which he had flushed down the toilet in his first moments of revulsion? What to do? What to do?
The voice of his infestation had advised him to simply explain it to her. “After all,” it suggested, “honesty is the best policy.” From the way the phrase was expressed, Rother was sure it had picked up that cliche from his mind. It was a deeply disturbing thought, that his memory was evidently entirely accessible to his parasitical infestation but, he told himself, probably not as alarming as the simple fact of the parasite’s existence within him. He was slightly comforted that he could clearly differentiate between his own thoughts and the voice of the parasite, but immediately found himself wondering if that state of affairs would continue.
“Yes,” said the voice. “It will continue for as long as you wish it to.”
He could not imagine circumstances under which he might not be able to distinguish both identities, but decided not to pursue that notion just yet.
“Probably wise,” said the voice.
Rother shook his head and wondered if he would ever get used to having a second voice in his head.
“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “For as long as you wish.”
Hearing that seemingly innocent, potentially comforting, phrase for the second time, Rother shivered. “For as long as I wish? What’s that supposed to mean?” he thought, aware that he was now indulging in thought-talk with his new companion.
“Surely,” responded the other voice, “the meaning is self-explanatory.”
Rother had been about to disagree when Mercy appeared in the bedroom doorway, still delightfully naked. “I suppose,” she said, “if I’m going to be slaving over a hot stove, I’d best slip into something less comfortable.”
He smiled for the first time since he had become aware of his invasive parasite, and was pleased that the sight of a naked Mercy was enough to distract him, even if only for a moment or two, from whatever it was that was happening to him.
“You really should tell her,” advised the voice, and Rother found himself almost agreeing until he realised that he didn’t want Mercy to see him in his present state. He turned his head away from the door and stretched out one leg so he could swing the bathroom door shut.
“Hey,” shouted Mercy. “What’s that about?”
Lacking any better explanation, he yelled back, “I don’t want you to see me right now. I look a mess.”
“Awww. Cut yourself shaving again?” She pouted. “Need me to kiss it all better?”
“It’s actually a little bit more complicated than that,” he responded, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as he could.
Mercy pushed on the door from the outside, but he kept his foot in place, holding it shut. “Leave me alone.”
More than anything he wanted to reach out, enfold Mercy in his arms, and tell her what was happening to him, but he couldn’t overcome his determination not to be seen.
“Don’t mind me,” said the voice in his head.
“But I do,” replied Rother.
“You do what?” asked Mercy playfully. “Want me to kiss it all better?”
Realising he had spoken his thought aloud, Rother tried to rescue the moment with what he hoped was an enigmatic chuckle. “No, no. It’s just that it’s a bit bloody.”
Mercy pushed the door again more firmly. This time, it opened a few inches. Mercy peered through but quickly pulled back, grimaced, and her eyes widened involuntarily. “What the hell is that?” she asked.
“What?” asked Rother, but he knew exactly what was disturbing her. She was staring wide-eyed at his face with an expression which was more one of horror than surprise. Quickly, though, she modified her response and stepped into the bathroom.
“Yeuchh!” she said. “You’ve got some kind of … you’re breaking out.” She took a second or two to fine tune her choice of words. “You’ve got these gross whiteheads sprouting on your face. So vile. When did that all start?”
Rother took several steps back in shock, then wrenched his body quickly away from Mercy again as she gripped his shoulders. “No!” he grunted. “Please, no.”
“What do you think it is?” She sounded alarmed, almost frightened.
“I don’t know,” replied Rother. “What do you think?” Mercy’s seesawing responses had set him wondering. He couldn’t rationalise it, but it was almost as if she had expected to see what she did. He shrugged her hands off his shoulders and pushed her back through the bathroom door. “Just give me a minute.” He slammed the door shut between them and slid the bolt across.
She shouted through the door, “Are you OK, Doogle? I’m sure it’s just some kind of breakout, some infection, like big whiteheads or something like that.” Her voice sounded consoling, but a shade too dismissive, as if she was trying to make light of something she knew was serious. “Let me take a better look at it.”
Despite her anxiety about Rother, as she spoke, she was slipping into her favourite dark market knockoff Belong t-shirt, and couldn’t help wondering if she would ever be able to acquire a genuine one, even though she knew there was no way she would ever join The Belonging. “No way,” she whispered to herself. “Those people are crazies.”
By now, Rother was attempting to make a detailed examination of his face in the mirror. Sure enough, there was yet another eruption on his skin and, even as he looked, the top opened up and a tiny mouth pushed through, followed by those pale antennae, the little black eyes and a rounded head.
“Jesus H. Christ on a dildo!” he exclaimed.
“No, no, no,” responded the voice, its tone irritatingly patronising. “It’s just another of me.”
This was one of the points at which Rother’s recollection of recent events became particularly fuzzy and indistinct.
He could vaguely remember trying to calm down both himself and Mercy without opening the door. He remembered her saying, “Chill down, Doogle. I’m sure it’s just a rash. Maybe an allergic thing? Have you eaten anything unusual lately?” Again, he couldn’t escape the feeling that she was underplaying what she was really thinking, but there was no way he was going to let her see the way his face was being ravaged.
He needed time to think it all through, try to rationalise what was happening to him and where it might lead, where it might stop … if ever. Was he simply going insane? But Mercy had seen his face, even if only briefly, and her first reaction had been of horror. Or was that too just all part of his madness?
Somehow, he had eventually managed to convince her to get dressed, go off to her work at the Hu Foundation, and leave him in the bathroom. She had sounded anxious as she called out to him, “Doogle, are you sure you’re all right? I can stay if you want.”
He had cut her short. “No, no. It’s best if you go. I can look after myself. You know I can. I promise I’ll get a doctor if I think I need one.” Despite his words he was becoming increasingly convinced that he was beyond any imaginable medical help. If there was any kind of solution, it would have to be resolved between him and his parasite.
“Call me if there’s … anything,” she yelled from the other side of the apartment. “Any … development. Anything, you know?”
He had listened out to hear Mercy close the apartment door, and then remained silent a while longer to be sure she had gone, before he allowed himself to think about exactly what was happening to him.
If this was a normal morning, he’d be injecting his first shot of insulin for the day but, staring at his face in the bathroom mirror, he knew that diabetes was no longer his worst problem. Maintaining some semblance of his sanity was.
CHAPTER 4 : Booster Shot
“He has not the slightest idea,” insisted Mercy Yoo.
Across town, in the expensively faux art deco-style HQ building of the Hu Foundation, she sat directly opposite Mr. Kintsugi Joon-woo, the boss of her boss’s boss.
She had arrived that morning feeling inordinately guilty for having deceived Doogle. With her immediate superior, Mr. Jong Min-Jun, off on sick leave, she had gone into the office of her section boss, Mr. Park, and told him what she had seen. He had immediately concluded that it was a matter for Mr. Kintsugi.
Despite Kintsugi’s elevated status, Mercy felt confident within herself, quite unintimidated. She was by nature self-assured, but she knew that her unwavering composure on this specific occasion was, at least to some extent, enhanced by her careful choice of business outfit. She had gone for her outrageously expensive Dsquared2 denim Roxy Heart trouser suit, paired with a comparatively cheap smart red blouse and a pair of stylishly understated flats – also from a mass market budget range. She could barely afford the Roxy Heart on her salary, and she had changed into it as soon as she arrived at work because, despite knowing how utterly irrational it was, wearing it made her feel stronger.
It had taken most of the day to get to speak directly to Kintsugi, but she was certain he would want to hear what she had to say about Doogle.
Now, with the afternoon almost gone, she stared at Kintsugi’s blandly handsome features across a desk whose hard, shiny black surface reflected both of their faces. It seemed to Mercy that whenever Mr. Kintsugi spoke, he was talking at her dark reflection rather than directly to her face.
“How can you be certain?” asked Mr. Kintsugi.
“We’ve lived together for almost five years,” she countered, confidently. “I know him almost like I know myself. I know how he thinks, how he speaks, how he reacts.”
All right,” said Mr. Kintsugi. “You have done the right thing to come and report this to me. We do need, as has been explained to you, to be kept abreast of any unusual medical developments in yourself or your acquaintances.” His communicator beeped but he immediately switched it to mute and ignored it. “Tell me this, Miss Yoo, what do you think has happened to him?”
Mercy thought about it for a couple of heartbeats before replying. “I wish I knew. It looks like some sort of severe infection, some kind of infestation.”
Mr. Kintsugi lapsed into silence for a few moments. “Let us say, for the moment, that I accept that your partner has no idea of what is happening to him.” He stopped and raised his gaze to directly meet her’s. “Might he nevertheless perhaps suspect that you have been the source of his infestation?”
She was totally thrown by the question. “Me?” She unconsciously tugged at the cuff of her red blouse, pulling it out from the bottom of her jacket sleeve. Her confidence had taken a substantial knock because Mr. Kintsugi’s question seemed so outlandish.
“Yes, you, Miss Yoo,” replied Mr. Kintsugi, clearly relishing the sound of the words.
“But how? But … but ….”
“Your most recent booster shot,” he began, smiling as thin as distilled water and narrowing his eyelids. “It appears that it may have done rather more than simply protect you from last year’s virus mutation.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s terribly, terribly complicated.”
Mercy’s mind was now racing. Kintsugi’s words were making her re-evaluate the purpose of certain ‘beyond top secret’ information to which she had become privy about a month and a half earlier. At the time she had felt privileged, as a relatively junior Hu Foundation exec, to have been trusted with what was clearly highly sensitive intel, but now she was starting to wonder if the organisation had been playing her for a fool.
Mr. Kintsugi was looking uncomfortable, as if he was uncertain of what he could say next. When he finally spoke, he sounded hesitant. It was a tone she had never heard in his voice on any previous occasion. “It cannot have escaped your notice,” he said, “that your immediate superior, Mr. Jong Min-Jun, has not returned to the Foundation, since he became, ah, unwell some time ago.”
Mercy felt a shiver crawling up through her spine. “He has the flu, yes?” she asked, knowing that she must be wrong.
“He does not have the flu,” stated Mr. Kintsugi, pronouncing each word slowly and clearly. “He does not have anything at all.”
Mr. Kintsugi shook his head slowly and deliberately before continuing. “Nothing. We learned, to our corporate horror, not long before we removed him from his post, that Mr. Jong had been undertaking acts of industrial sabotage against the Foundation on behalf of another company.”
“Sabotage?” She was having difficulty taking in everything Mr. Kintsugi was saying. She had worked with Mr. Jong for longer even than she had known Doogle. She liked Mr. Jong, admired his deterministic attitude to life, had even flirted with him occasionally. Now, though, she was remembering how she had also from time to time wondered why he had never responded to her smiles and her not-so-subtle inquiries about his relationship status. She had concluded, eventually, that he might be be gay, or perhaps just exceptionally shy, and so she contented herself with settling in to a productive working relationship with him. Now, in an instant, she was having to re-think everything. “No,” she said. “Not Mr. Jong.”
Mr. Kintsugi was still slowly shaking his head. “Yes. Mr. Jong.”
“Yes.” insisted Mr. Kintsugi.
Mercy was rapidly realising that what she was being told about Mr. Jong must in some way relate to what Mr. Kintsugi had said earlier about her being the source of Doogle’s infestation.
Now she was desperate to know the rest of the details, but while she waited for Mr. Kintsugi to start explaining, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking back over a needlessly expensive, unfeasibly long, alfresco lunch on a gloriously sunny afternoon at the swanky Cliff House restaurant, overlooking Ocean Beach on the San Francisco peninsula’s Northern coastline.
That had been where Mr. Jong’s boss, Mr. Park, had divulged to her the ‘beyond top secret’ intel which had forced her to lie to Doogle.
CHAPTER 5 : Thoughts And Words
“How are you feeling?” asked the voice.
Rother tried to ignore it. He desperately wanted to think logically about what was happening to him, but anything resembling a coherent thought was eluding him.
He stared at his face in the mirror and, overcoming his feelings of revulsion, he raised his hand up and gently touched his skin at the base of one of the squirming entities. His stomach was churning and he could feel an urge to vomit rising up in his throat, but he strained to hold it down.
“Are you all right?” asked the voice.
“Fuck off,” said Rother, talking at his reflection as if it was a separate entity. “Fuck right off.” He could see his lips move as he spoke the words. “Shit! It’s not you,” he reasoned, feeling a small sense of relief that he had made a rational deduction.
“No,” said the voice. “It’s us.”
Despite having figured out that the face in the mirror was not the source of the words, Rother continued to speak to his reflection. “Get the fuck out of my head,” he told it. “I’m not mad. Who are you? Where are you?”
As he asked the questions, Rother turned away from the mirror to look behind himself. He scanned the walls, floor and ceiling of the bathroom, even though he really did not expect to find anything. He briefly entertained the notion that what he could see in the mirror had somehow become an alternate version of the real bathroom but that seemed even more unlikely than the possibility that he was hearing voices because he was going mad. Once again, he felt a tiny surge of relief that he was still able to make logical deductions but it lasted only until he asked himself if a madman could ever really know whether his deductions were logical.
“I’m sorry to be causing you such distress,” said the voice.
“Where the hell are you?” asked Rother again. “None of this makes any sense. What have you done to my face?”
“Which of those questions would you like me to answer first?”
For the first time, Rother noticed that, as well as the words he could hear in his head, he was also detecting something else accompanying those words. It was like a sensation, or maybe even an emotion, and he could only imagine that it was coming from whatever was communicating with him. As the voice spoke, it was accompanied by what Rother perceived as the feeling of running the palm of a hand over dew-soaked moss.
“Why, yes,” said the voice. “I believe that does resemble how I’m feeling at this moment.”
“Stop it,” said Rother, holding his hand out and pressing his palm against the surface of the mirror. “Stop doing that,” he said, clenching his hand into a fist.
“You appear not to like my voice being in your mind.”
“Oh, really?” Rother took a step back from the mirror and, once again, looked around the bathroom. He lifted the top of the linen basket, then opened the door of the airing cupboard. “Where are you?”
“Not out there,” said the voice.
“This has to be some kind of insanity,” said Rother.
“You are not insane,” said the voice. “At least, not insane by any of the definitions of that word I have found in your memory.”
“Well, gee, that’s a comfort. I’m not insane. I’m just hearing voices that aren’t there.”
“We are here,” countered the voice.
“We?” queried Rother. “How many of you are there?”
“One,” said the voice. “But I am many.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” pointed out Rother. “But then none of this makes sense.”
“It will,” said the voice.
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 Mercy 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 was 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 at all natural for her, 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. The Acceleration Project aims to circumvent this problem 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 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 to have 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 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 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 10 : Into The Bhalak
The face of Albert Bach resembled nothing so much as a hairless Chinese Crested dog. He had been made acutely aware of this fact for most of his life and was resigned to it. His school mates had dubbed him Dogface, and girls had been known to take roundabout routes between classes to avoid passing too close to him in the corridors.
He had first encountered an actual Chinese Crested when he was fifteen and had immediately felt a bond with the tiny canine, but it was only when he posted a selfie featuring himself and the dog online that he realised why. The image went almost viral and provoked hundreds of cruelly unflattering comparisons, most of them from girls.
Albert, nevertheless, continued to feel affection towards Chinese Cresteds and the more he became isolated from normal teenage society, the more he identified with the dogs. Whether his drift into the world of crime was related to his lack of friends was not something he spent much time analysing but, having been forced to reject ordinary companionship, he knew he felt more at home among the rejects and outcasts from the conventional social order than he ever had done among his peers.
By the time he came into the orbit of Roberto Segarini, Albert was in his mid-twenties and had still never gone on a date with a female.
Segarini was almost the polar opposite of Albert. Tall, athletically-built, handsome, worldly and sophisticated, Segarini appeared to be comfortable in any situation. Best of all, from Albert’s perspective, he didn’t seem at all disconcerted by the little man’s unappealing appearance. They had bonded almost at first sight.
Today, after a decade of working together, Segarini was having one of his bad days, and Albert was doing everything he could to make it better. Most days brought vivid hallucinations, populated by nameless demons and devils, which plagued Segarini’s consciousness and destroyed his ability to think rationally. This day, however, had brought something much worse.
Over the past hour, Segarini’s voice had gradually mutated from his usual smooth and manly tones until it became harsh and inhuman. “Here I am,” rasped the new voice. “I am here.”
Albert had heard these abrasive tones many times before and knew that, with the right handling, he could restore Segarini to normality. He pressed a cold, damp cloth against Segarini’s forehead, and held his hand firmly but not too tight.
“How’s that,” he asked. “Is that comfortable?”
“You are filth,” grated the voice. “The most hideously vile, crawling invertebrate ever to have existed.”
This was not quite the response for which Albert had been hoping. Over the years, Segarini’s bad periods had been not only intensifying but extending in their duration, and Albert feared there might come one time when his friend would not return.
“Bhalak,” intoned Albert, “You do not exist.”
The voice of Bhalak emitted a soulless laugh, but Albert knew he had to persist. “You are Roberto Segarini,” declared Albert. “I am his servant and we command Bhalak to return to the nameless vortex from which it was spawned.” He knew he was spouting meaningless gibberish, but he also knew that Segarini believed it.
Albert was now perspiring so profusely that the sweat ran down from his wrinkled brow and over his eyelids to roll like tears down his puffy cheeks. He and Segarini had gone through this ritual so often that he knew he could triumph if he could summon up the will power to continue even when he felt it was hopeless.
He closed his eyes and tried to remind himself again of precisely what it was that he and Segarini were fighting. Albert had learned over the years that despite the appearance of supreme self-confidence radiated by Segarini, he was a man riven by terrors.
This particular terror was called Bhalak and, although Albert knew it did not exist, Segarini was convinced that Bhalak was consuming every part of him.
Albert could remember the day it had all begun. He had been drooling over his favourite 3D porn show on the giant surround screen in his room at the rear of Segarini’s upscale penthouse apartment on Webster Street when a small screen inserted itself over the open mouth of the woman about whom he was fantasising.
It was Segarini, breaking in on Albert’s porno, to summon him through to the main lounge. “Albie,” he said, “you have got to see this. Stop jerking off and come on through.”
In his hands, Segarini was holding a battered and stained leather-bound volume bearing the inscription Grimoire Profanus on its spine. “See here,” he declared. “Look at this.”
With Albert peering over his broad shoulder, Segarini read out the section which had captured his attention. “Among the most feared of all Assyrian demons is Bhalak. Summoned unconsciously by those unfortunates tortured with repressed thoughts and memories, Bhalak inhabits and controls his victims, feeding off their troubled emotions and driving them ever more deeply into depravity and perversion from which there is no escape.”
Albert’s first inclination had been to laugh and dismiss the words as superstitious gobbledegook but he quickly came to see that Segarini believed every word.
Albert had long known Segarini’s background, but none of what he had learned came directly from Segarini. It was only assiduous research which had established that the assassin’s arrival in California a decade earlier had been occasioned by the need to flee his native Sicily when the Mafia family with which he had been affiliated decided his sociopathic tendencies made him an unacceptable liability, even to the most ruthless criminal organisation in the Western world. The peak of his notoriety had come in 2005 when Elite magazine had placed him at No9 on its list of the World’s Fifty Most Dangerous Mobsters, and listed his achievements as counterfeiting, extortion, homicide and enucleation.
What neither Albert or anyone else had ever known was that Segarini had been the child of an ultra-strict Catholic family, and the only way he could justify the many horrific acts he had committed was to bury them, internalise them and, in effect, ascribe them to some aspect of his personality over which he had no conscious control.
Now, thanks to the Grimoire Profanus, he could finally rationalise his misdeeds as having been executed under the control of Bhalak.
Ever since that day, Segarini had fallen increasingly under the spell of the imaginary demon Bhalak, and only the ministrations of his faithful Albert stood between him and eternal damnation.
CHAPTER 11 : LIFE AND DEATH MATTER
Rother was nodding at his own image on his hand-held screen. “And that’s what you are? An intelligent, self-aware virus. No offence intended here, Kane, but who in hell would want to create an intelligent, self-aware virus? Such a thing, present company excepted, would be a monstrosity. It would be potentially the end of the human race.”
“Not,” intoned Kane, “if you could control it.”
Although Kane’s back-story was becoming a shade less muddy, Rother knew there must be much more to come. “Don’t you mean, not if the Foundation could control it?”
“Indeed! That was just one of the many things I absorbed from Mr. Jong Min-Jun’s memories before he ceased to exist. That’s what the Foundation was hoping to engineer. A virus which knows what it is doing. A virus like me.”
The idea horrified Rother and, for a few moments, it concerned him that Kane knew how much it horrified his host.
“You’re going to need to get used to that idea,” stated Kane in matter-of-fact tones, delivered along with a sensation like velvet stroking Rother’s forehead. “I’m here and I’m in control of your body but rest assured that I’m not the monstrosity you imagine, and I’m certainly not the monstrosity the Foundation was hoping to create.”
Judging by their interactions thus far, Rother was willing to accept that this might be true and, temporarily somewhat placated, he asked the question which had been rattling around in his head since Kane had revealed that he knew Mercy. “Tell me this. How did you transfer from Mr. Jong to Mercy?”
A feeling like chilly, rushing water assaulted Rother’s mind along with Kane’s next words. “That’s a long, complicated story, whose intricate details are more likely to confuse rather than enlighten you.”
Again, Rother decided it might be judicious to accept Kane’s words at face value. “So just give me the idiot’s guide,” he suggested.
With no hesitation, Kane launched straight in. “After developing consciousness, I remained with Mr. Jong, absorbing, learning, developing and adapting, almost until he ceased to exist.”
Kane was hampered in recalling this part of the story but only because Mr. Jong Min-Jun himself had possessed no knowledge of what had happened to him. “He understood that he was dying,” explained Kane, “but he had no idea why.”
A chilling thought occurred to Rother.
“No,” responded Kane. “I was not killing him. I needed him for my own survival. Neither of us knew why he was dying. I still don’t know. An illness I assume.”
Rother found this hard to believe. “But you knew about my diabetes. You say you fixed it. Why couldn’t you have fixed Mr. Jong?”
“I was so young. I was still very new then,” offered Kane. “I did not yet know my own capabilities. Everything was new to me.”
Despite some lingering suspicions, Rother was inclined for the most part to believe Kane. “I suppose,” he said. “This would have been, what, just a few hours, maybe a couple of days after you achieved self-awareness.”
“Good,” said Kane. “These things I am telling you are the truth. Drastically edited, but nevertheless true.”
After a moment’s reflection, Rother decided the most pragmatic course of action was to accept what Kane was telling him and try to proceed from there. “So, I suppose when you realised he was dying,” he asked, “you started to think of ways in which you might extract yourself, ways to move to another host?”
“Not at all,” replied Kane. “I accepted that I would cease to exist – you might say die – along with him. I considered myself, by that time, to have become an integral part of Mr. Jong. My every conscious thought existed only because he had enabled it. I could not have existed as a conscious entity without him. Do you see?”
Rother was still turning the ideas around in his head, still uncertain of what they might imply. “So you were prepared to die whenever Mr. Jong died?”
“Exactly. Cease to exist is more accurate. There are, after all, only two states of being. Existing and not existing. From my perspective, neither was preferable. Both were simply states of being.”
Rother took a very deep breath. “Two states of being? Just two?” He found the notion hard to accommodate. “Surely there are many states of being. You yourself existed in a non-conscious state of being before you entered Mr. Jong Min-Jun. And what about plants? What state of being would you consider them to be?”
“You asked for the short version,” pointed out Kane. “Besides, your primary concern is simply how I came to be within Mercy. Is that not so?”
Rother conceded the point. “Yes, you’re right. We can circle back to states of being later. So, yes, tell me, how did you enter Mercy?”
“What you appear to have forgotten,” said Kane, “probably because I agreed to refer to myself in the singular, is that I am, we are, in actual fact, a hive-like entity. You must bear this in mind while I relate these events.”
Kane proceeded to explain how, after some unspecified length of time in Mr. Jong’s slowly dying body, he became aware of a division taking place in his consciousness. “I did not at first understand what was happening and, indeed, it was not until I established contact with Mercy’s consciousness that an explanation presented itself.”
Rother needed a moment or two to collect his thoughts. “Do you mean that you were somehow extracted from Mr. Jong Min-Jun and inserted into Mercy?”
“Parts of me,” corrected Kane. “Or you might say some of us.”
CHAPTER 12 : THE PURSUIT OF ANGELS
The silence of the wispavator unnerved Mercy during its descent from Mr. Kintsugi’s office suite on the 14th floor to the sub-basement car park. For some reason the BGM system which usually provided audio-clones of currently popular ambient dance tracks was not functioning, so there was nothing to distract her from the disturbing kaleidoscope of near-paranoid thoughts that were now clamouring for her attention.
Having confronted Kintsugi with her realisation that the ‘booster’ shots she had received on joining the Acceleration team were a sham, a cover for something much more sinister, she had been able to winnow out of the clearly rattled executive some details which she felt were at least significantly closer to the truth.
He had tried to avoid giving her a direct answer but, knowing that she had worked out the truth, he was left with precious little squirm room. Mercy was increasingly aware that Kintsugi, despite the reverence in which he was held by his underlings at the Foundation, despite his huge office suite, despite everything she had previously believed to be true about him, was really just another minnow in a vast shark-infested ocean. He was clearly scared witless of his superiors, whoever and wherever they might be.
As their conversation had continued, it seemed increasingly likely to her that their every word was being monitored, their every gesture being watched. With those thoughts uppermost in her mind, she felt she had to learn whatever she could from Kintsugi, before getting out of his office as quickly as possible. She also reasoned there was a distinct possibility that Kintsugi might be silenced. With each passing second she had expected his phone to buzz, or some unknown individual to enter the room and whisper a few words in his ear, after which their conversation would come to an abrupt end.
It didn’t happen.
Kintsugi did, however, seem to become more anxious the longer he spoke. She listened with increasing trepidation, as he told her of how, after discovering that Mr. Jong was working for Nanovit, the Foundation had wasted no time in removing him from his post and placing him in solitary isolation under strict quarantine conditions.
It was only then that Foundation doctors and scientists had detected that Mr. Jong was suffering from a severe viral infection, and also that his vital signs were deteriorating rapidly. Concluding, not unreasonably, that the Acceleration Project virus was killing him, they had drawn off several syringes full of his blood and taken tissue samples for further examination.
It was shortly after Mr. Jong died, that some of those blood samples had been injected into Mercy Yoo in an attempt to keep them viable.
She had almost screamed when she heard Kintsugi speak those words, but managed to control her emotions sufficiently to utter one choice question. “Are you all fucking batshit crazy?”
Kintsugi flinched visibly, but Mercy continued to berate him. “You had no idea what that might do to me! You used me as a guinea pig and then, if I understand this rightly, you crazy mothers let me walk out of this building and go home to Doogle, knowing that I might infect him! Is that right? Is that right?”
That was when Kintsugi’s phone had finally buzzed and, even as he picked it up, Mercy knew she could remain no longer. She arrived, breathless, at the wispavator moments later, laughing because she was congratulating herself on having chosen a pair of eminently sensible flats before she had set off for Foundation HQ that morning. “My Jimmy Choo stiletto knock-offs would have been useless,” she said aloud to herself in a futile attempt to lessen the rising tide of terror in her gut.
The Mercedes Benz E-Class she had acquired as a sweetener in her new contract was sitting in the sub-basement a shade over 50 yards from the wispavator. As the doors slid open, she started off towards it at a clip but then came screeching to a halt when she registered two smartly-dressed young men in black suits examining it with obvious interest.
She barely had time to decelerate and feign a casual stroll before one of those men turned his attention to her. In the heat of the moment, the only piece of advice Mercy could bring to mind was ‘the best defence is attack’.
“Hey, ladies,” she shouted at them, already hating her failure to come up with anything more subtle, “That salesman was obviously right – the E-Class is definitely a girl’s ride.”
Now they were both looking her way, and the taller of the two was slo-mo peeling a pair of classic Ray-ban wraparounds off his face to get a better look.
She was still moving towards them, her head held high, the car remote clutched in her fist, hoping she was giving off enough attitude to buy her a couple of moments in which she might think of a better strategy. If these two were Hu Foundation security, how might she best convince them she was not Mercy Yoo? If they were sharp-dressed carjackers was there any way she might scare them off? If they were just a couple of petrolheads could she get rid of them by pointing out that her Merc was all-electric?
She was still running through options when the shorter of the pair pulled his wallet out and flipped it open for her to see. “It’s all right, Miss. D2D Security. We were on our way to clock off for the night, when we noticed a couple of guys acting suspiciously round your car…”
Mercy was not immediately convinced. She remained rooted in the spot where she had stopped. “Really? What’s D2D Security?”
By now the other one also had his ID in his hand. “Sorry, Miss. Didn’t mean to alarm you. Dusk 2 Dawn Security. We provide security services for the mall on the ground floor of this building…”
Thinking about it, she realised she had seen cars with the D2D logo on their doors in the parking lot on several occasions. Maybe these guys were genuine.
As the shorter of the two took a couple of steps towards Mercy, his eyes widened dramatically and he managed to yell, “Get down!” an instant before the front of his face exploded, with blood, fragments of bone and chunks of flesh flying into the air around him.
Instinctively, she dropped to the ground. She could hear the taller of the two frantically shouting, “Man down!” into his communicator. “We need backup here right now.”
There was only one thought in Mercy’s head, “Get the hell out!”, as she rolled into a crouch and started scrambling towards her E-class under cover of a neighbouring vehicle.
From what she had seen, the shooter was behind her, likely somewhere near the wispavator door. As she tapped the remote to open the car, she could hear more shots being fired. She slithered left to avoid the fallen security man, then rolled until she made contact with the side of her vehicle.
To her relief, the second D2D man was still alive, apparently not injured, and was firing past her towards the attacker. Without so much as glancing in her direction, he yelled, “Get out of here, Miss. Any way you can.”
More shots were echoing around the car park as she reached up to pull her car door open. “Get in!” she called out to the surviving man.
“Just go!” he yelled back. “I’ll cover you.” A jumble of distorted voices was coming from his communicator, which had now fallen to the ground.
With no time to think, Mercy yanked her door shut, slammed the E-class into reverse, twisted the steering wheel, and accelerated as hard as she dared out onto the exit ramp. As she pulled away, in her rear view mirror she glimpsed what appeared to be two men in matching white suits running after her.
Approaching the exit barrier too fast to stop, Mercy couldn’t help thinking that it all felt like a scene from an 18+ action movie but a thousand times more real. She had left one corpse behind her, a man who had given up his life for her despite never having even met her, and there was another complete stranger back there still trying to keep her safe.
She closed her eyes tight and accelerated into the barrier. Once on the other side, she opened her eyes again and was hit by an exhilarating flood of relief, knowing she was out of the car park and onto a public thoroughfare. She took her foot off the accelerator and screamed at the top of her voice, without really knowing why.
Part of her wanted to stop and go back to see what was happening, see if there was any way she could help the surviving D2D man, but a more rational part of her mind told her he was probably already dead, and the best thing she could do now was head for home and warn Rother of the dangers closing in on all sides.
Two patrol cars, sirens blaring, lights flashing, raced past her, evidently already on their way to the car park. With her mind scrambled by everything that was happening, she could barely think of how to get home, and stabbed at the GPS to enter their Valencia Street address.
Forced to stop at the red lights on the next but one intersection, she was alarmed to realise that she didn’t instantly recognise her surroundings. “Shock,” she thought. By the time the lights had changed, she was starting to recognise some landmarks – that Greek deli on the corner; then as she pulled away the smashed-up disused phone box half a block further on, the neon sign above the door of the tiny Tom Thumb bar where she and Doogle used to be regulars before they moved to Valencia.
Mercy covered the four miles from the Foundation HQ to The Mission in a little over seventeen minutes. It was a relief to be back on what she regarded as her home turf, but her thoughts still felt just as much in disarray as they had been back in the car park. Her fear of being monitored meant that she hadn’t dared to call Rother, so she was increasingly desperate just to see him and hear his voice.
She pulled the car into a space on Mission Street, sat there for a few moments unsuccessfully trying to collect her thoughts, then got out and ran the last couple of hundred yards to Valencia Street, hurrying past the tourist-trap graffiti on Clarion Alley, avoiding the Taqueria, dodging the diners at the sidewalk tables, and finally taking the stairs two at a time to reach their apartment.
“Doogle,” she shouted as she slammed the door shut behind her, but she knew immediately that the apartment didn’t sound right. “Doogle, where are you?”, she called out, checking each room as she came to it. “Doogle?”
Only a hollow silence came back. If she could have imagined any way in which this day might get worse, this would be it. Doogle was gone.
CHAPTER 13 : Self Service
As the afternoon had worn on, engrossed, confounded and horrified though he was by his interactions with his symbiote, Rother had realised he needed food. Mercy frequently told him, and he had to admit it was true, that his relationship with food was like a child’s. If he didn’t eat enough, or even if he didn’t eat at quite the right times, he would become grumpy. Generally, he attributed that to his diabetes.
This had been an extraordinary day because, as well as having been invaded by an intelligent virus, Rother had not eaten since breakfast. “That’s a first,” he told Kane as he dug out a couple of jam doughnuts from the depths of their vintage Smeg. “You’ve made me skip lunch.”
Kane, evidently unimpressed, did not respond. Rother had been rather pleased with himself for recognising that the downward dip in his mood over the past couple of hours was probably related to a drop in his blood sugar level.
“More likely it’s psychological, just force of habit,” suggested Kane. “Remember you’re not diabetic any more.”
“Whatever you say,” replied Rother, wiping strawberry jam filling from his lips.
It felt to Rother as if every step forward in Kane’s tale was accompanied by at least a couple of steps back to explain it with a little more accuracy. Even so, as the sun fell lower in the sky, he slowly began to understand that Kane genuinely did not know the precise mechanism by which he had been transferred from Mr. Jong to Mercy. All he seemed sure of was that once he was within Mercy he had started to have access to her consciousness and her memories.
“Yes,” said Kane. “The parts of us which then existed within Mercy continued, but those parts which had remained in Mr. Jong ceased to exist, as far as I know.”
“As far as you know?”
“I can offer no more accurate description. Every part of me knows everything already known to any other part, but once we have been sub-divided, it seems that each part becomes a separate entity. I certainly know nothing of the fate of the parts of me which were not transferred. I can only assume that they ceased to exist along with Mr. Jong.”
“And yet you are still a complete being, with all of the memories of your former self. Selves.” Rother was stumbling along, finding it difficult to put the ideas he hoped he was beginning to understand into coherent English.
“Yes!” enthused Kane, like a proud schoolteacher pleased with the progress of a slow pupil. “It was in Mercy’s mind that I learned of the death of Mr. Jong but because she did not know all of the details, neither could I.”
“Yes,” said Rother, stretching out the single syllable for as long as he reasonably could. “But then, for some reason, you did not remain with her?”
“True,” agreed Kane. “Although I could access her consciousness, I found that I was unable to interact with her as fully as I had done with Mr. Jong. I was limited. I could not fully control or manipulate her. It felt as if she had some kind of natural immunity to me. It made me feel … uncomfortable. That’s the best word I can find, for the moment.”
It felt to Rother as if Kane was genuinely having difficulty explaining his interaction with Mercy. Even so, based on the limited information Kane could provide, a name popped unbidden into Rother’s mind. “Typhoid Mary.”
Kane seemed to detect it immediately and, seconds later, he knew as much about Typhoid Mary as Rother did. “An asymptomatic super spreader? Yes, that makes sense. That could be what Mercy is.”
“Not necessarily,” countered Rother. “I mean, Typhoid Mary was just the first thing that came into my mind. It doesn’t mean that’s what she is.”
Kane was clearly intrigued. “Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon, died in quarantine, 1938, in Riverside Hospital, North Brother Island, New York State. Spent most of her adult life, over thirty years, in quarantine, a virtual prisoner of a disease, Salmonella typhi, which she carried but whose symptoms did not affect her.”
“You’re really not cheering me up,” said Rother through gritted teeth. “Sure, I agree that Mercy might be an asymptomatic carrier, but it doesn’t follow that she will die alone after thirty years in quarantine.”
“I did not imply anything of that sort,” retorted Kane. “Besides, what makes you think my function is to cheer you up?”
Looking at it objectively, Rother knew Kane was right on both points, but he did not like it and attempted to change the flow of their conversation. “Well then, since you’ve brought it up, exactly what is your function?”
Nothing came back immediately and Rother was pleased to think that he had, if nothing else, given Kane pause. Eventually, his symbiote said, “I think we’ve meandered off track.”
“And I think you’re avoiding my question,” argued Rother. “What exactly is your function?”
“I don’t know. Certainly not with any precision. Let me think about it and I promise I will provide you with an answer as soon as I have one myself.”
Once again, Rother was gratified to realise that Kane was far from the kind of hyper-intelligent alien life form he had initially assumed the virus to be.
“Might I suggest,” said Kane, “that we return, for the moment, to your primary concern. You wanted to understand how I passed from Mr. Jong through Mercy to you.”
Rother conceded that this was probably a good direction of travel, but made a mental note to return to the matter of Kane’s function, if and when an opportunity presented itself.
For several minutes more Kane elaborated the details of his transition, revealing that he had felt restricted while inside Mercy’s body. “I was unable to evolve, or develop within her. I quickly began to feel that my newfound consciousness was as much a curse as it was a welcome mutation of my being. What use was self-awareness if it was to be forever limited, curtailed, by existing inside a body which offered no possibility of further development?”
A mixture of relief and empathy now entered Rother’s thoughts. He was, of course, relieved that Mercy’s body could not be exploited by Kane as his had been, but he also felt some sympathy for Kane’s predicament. At the same time, he could not stop himself from wondering how much of that sympathy was being engendered by Kane’s ability to control his neurotransmitters.
“None whatsoever,” insisted Kane, before quickly returning to his explanation of how he had moved from Mercy to Rother. “It did not take me long to conclude that I should attempt to leave Mercy’s body and locate an environment more propitious for my development. I had learned while inside Mr. Jong Min-Jun that life-forms of his sort tended to exist in two main types – male and female. I had also learned that there are certain situations in which it is quite normal for fluids to be exchanged between humanoid bodies.”
At this point, Rother briefly wondered if he really wanted to hear what he feared was likely to come next, but Kane was clearly on a roll. The story was out before anything could be done about it.
“So I waited for the right opportunity, and it came one evening when Mercy returned to your apartment on Valencia Street and found you cooking dinner. She put her arms around your neck, pressed your body to hers, and kissed you several times on the lips …”
Inwardly, Rother breathed a sigh of relief. Those kisses, he realised, would have been enough to allow Kane to transfer into his body along with Mercy’s saliva.
” … and then you stopped cooking,” said Kane, “and moved through to the bedroom where, for the next hour or so …”
“OK!” interrupted Rother. “I’ve got the picture. You don’t need to spell it out for me. I was there.” Kane’s description had brought that evening vividly back to to life for Rother. “So you, or at least enough of you, entered my body.”
“And I found your body much more suitable than hers had been,” confirmed Kane.
“Gee, thanks, I think,” said Rother. but while he was pushing the last morsels of jam doughnut into his mouth, he clearly heard the sound of the door to the apartment clicking open. “That’ll be Mercy,” he thought for Kane’s benefit.
It was not Mercy.
CHAPTER 14 : Scrambled Eggs
“This was his last known address,” growled Haggis for the third time. “I keep telling you. We’re running out of places to look for him.”
“I hear you,” replied Smiddy, “but I’m not ready to give up on Mr. Jong yet. Let’s think about this. We’ve hacked his office computer, his home computer, his three laptops, his mobile, his dark web syncholes … and we’ve come up with precisely nothing.”
“Zilch,” agreed Peem.
Smiddy continued with his train of thought. “None of my deep phishing probes have provoked worthwhile responses from anybody we found on his contact lists.”
“Elfin will be delighted…” smirked Peem, scratching the tip of his hook nose with the narrow barrel of a DeKalb Wafer disruptor.
“So this apartment is just about our last hope,” concluded Smiddy. “We don’t leave this place until we find something useful.”
Haggis and Peem stared at him in dismay, then exchanged looks of impatient despair which Smiddy opted to ignore. “So let’s get this place turned over,” he ordered.
“You’re the boss,” said Haggis, with a smile that Smiddy found disturbing.
The trio set to work opening every drawer, checking every closet, lifting carpets and turning out trash bins. They worked in an edgy silence until Haggis finally asked, “What about this?”
Smiddy turned to look at him. “What about what?”
“This,” repeated Haggis, thrusting a crumpled sheet of paper towards Smiddy. “Found it in the kitchen bin.”
After smoothing the paper out on the nearest dresser top, Smiddy read it aloud. “‘Dear Mr Jong, Second reminder. Please ring the number below to arrange an appointment to discuss the results of your most recent examination.’” He looked up and shrugged his shoulders.
“So?” asked Haggis.
“So what?” responded Smiddy.
“So he was sick, that’s what.”
Smiddy made a show of scanning the letter again. “Not necessarily,” he decided. “It might have just been a routine checkup. Even if he was sick…” Smiddy stopped and appeared to be thinking it over. “OK. I’ll hang onto it,” he stated, folding the letter twice and thrusting it into his jacket pocket.
Haggis rolled his eyes up to heaven and shook his head. Every minute he spent in Smiddy’s presence made him despise the man more. Elfin, he reasoned, was right. If Smiddy had any brains at all, they were in his ass. That letter was the only tangible clue they now had which might lead them to Mr. Jong. It was a long shot, to be sure, but Haggis knew that Elfin would want to have every lead, no matter how tiny, followed up. He resolved, in that instant, to execute Smiddy as Elfin had instructed, then extract the letter from his pocket and take it to eir.
The Model B DeKalb Wafer was the latest slimline handheld personal exterminator available, and Haggis loved his like an only son. Lesser gunpokes were still using old-fangled automatics, and a handful of technologically-challenged diehards even favoured six-shooter pistols, but DeKalb disruptors, with their self-decaying plutonium streams and their wide range of firing options, were a cut above the rest.
Without removing it from its elegantly slender shoulder-holster, Haggis double-tapped his DeKalb’s options button to set the weapon for its narrowest beam, the setting he liked to call slice’n’dice.
Smiddy had now turned away and was standing in the room’s doorway, making it a simple matter for Haggis to train the DeKalb on the back of his head. The red sighting light was mingling among the hairs on the back of Smiddy’s head when Haggis fired, turning the light to green. With a deft flick of his index finger, he made the light describe a small circle which instantly carved a tube-shaped hole through Smiddy’s head. As Haggis had anticpated, this was accompanied by the sulphurous, acrid stench of burning keratin, and the sight of the hairs beneath the cut floating gently towards the floor.
What Haggis did not expect was that Smiddy did not drop. Indeed, he barely moved, not even when his blood started to trickle out of the neatly carved hole through his skull.
“What the fuck?” gasped Haggis.
Before the Dispatcher could collect his thoughts, Smiddy had spun round, hammer-punched him between the eyes and expertly caught the DeKalb Wafer as it flew out of the assassin’s grasp. “You didn’t know, did you,” laughed Smiddy, ” that before I was in Surgical Relocation, I spent five years in Dispatch.”
Still reeling from the unexpected blow to his head, Haggis didn’t really hear the words, but he did register the rivulets of blood running down the front of Smiddy’s face and briefly fancied that he could see all the way through the man’s skull into the hallway beyond.
Smiddy, meanwhile, had flipped the smoothly chiselled DeKalb over and triple-tapped the options button to set it on a wider beam, known to users as the Yesterday setting, because anything that got in its way would be reduced to the consistency of scrambled eggs.
As he fired the weapon directly into Haggis’s chest, Smiddy couldn’t resist tunelessly singing, “Oh, I believe in yesterday…”
He wasted no time checking to see exactly how dead Haggis was, because he knew that Peem would be on his way through the door behind him at any second.
Spinning round again, Smiddy caught sight of Peem’s right shoulder appearing round the edge of the doorframe, and loosed another Yesterday blast from the DeKalb, neatly separating Peem’s right arm from the rest of his body. As the assassin was thrown backwards, screaming in pain, Smiddy deftly angled himself to take another shot which evaporated most of Peem’s neck.
A few miles distant, deep in the heart of the Nanovit HQ building, two yellow lights winked out and an irritatingly catchy musical chime sounded its audio warning. “There goes Peem and Haggis,” said a vigilant operative, simultaneously opening a couple of relays to patch the link up to Elfin.
Seconds later, Elfin was observing the scene through Haggis’s body cam, by which time most of its screen was occupied by a close-up of Smiddy’s grinning visage. Elfin’s face betrayed no emotion.
“Consider this my resignation,” said Smiddy.
A flicker of annoyance sparked across Elfin’s otherwise serene features. “Surely not,” she breathed. “You have such a promising future here.”
“Which really doesn’t explain why you instructed Haggis to kill me.”
“Why would I do such a thing?”
“Neither Haggis nor Peem possessed the wit to make that decision on their own initiative. Someone else gave that order. My money’s on you.”
Elfin favoured him with a thin smile. “No, how could you…? Not me.”
Smiddy returned an equally thin smile back to her. She was so surpassingly lovely that, even in these dire circumstances, he found himself wanting to believe her. Thinking about it rationally, however, only one factor seemed in her favour – Haggis clearly had not known about the operation by which Smiddy’s brain had been relocated to his buttocks during his time as an experimental subject in the Surgical Relocation Division. It had been described to him by the consultant as a “radical research” procedure. If Elfin had instructed Haggis to assassinate him, surely she would have advised him about this anatomical anomaly.
It was a thought that niggled him, but Smiddy reckoned it was more than likely that Elfin would by now already have instructed Carver in Dispatch Division to send a couple more drivers after him, so he had best not be in Jong’s apartment when they arrived.
“It’s been, eh … real,” he said into the body cam, “But you know how it is, Elfin, things to do, places to go. Can’t hang about.” On the last word, he turned away and strode towards the door without looking back.
CHAPTER 15 : The Refugee
At night, with all of its exterior lights dimmed, The Tempel presented a sinister aspect which was almost precisely the opposite of the calm, soothing, meditative image which its founders, the Belonging Chamber, had intended.
The outline of the building, sitting prominently on an unmarked trail bordering Lobos Creek in The Presidio’s Southern Wilds, resembled nothing more than a hollow dried-out skull with a pair of pale lights glowing where its eyes would once have been.
Inside, in a small back room whose exterior wall consisted of one floor-to-ceiling window, a conclave of men in their mid-thirties was seated, all of them very upright, around a circular table. Only one chair, slightly larger and more ornate than the rest, was empty, pulled back a little from the table, and angled away. Its occupant was standing at the window, peering out over the lights of San Francisco.
“So,” he said, without turning to face the others, “she did not die?”
“That is correct,” confirmed a voice from the table. “Our two Angels were interrupted by the arrival of …”
“I don’t need the details,” said the figure at the window. “We must consider what this means. Perhaps Mercy Woo is not meant to die at this time. Perhaps she has another role to play before she dies? Perhaps there will be a better time…” He let the questions hang in the room for a few moments before he added, “Let me think on this. Leave me be.”
Glances passed around the table, but no-one spoke up. Instead, they started pushing their chairs back and walking in silence towards the door. Just as the first of them opened the door, the man at the window said, “Those two Angels.”
The others came to a standstill. “Yes?” asked the one with his hand on the doorknob.
“You will deal with them.”
Mercy was in the kitchen of the apartment on Valencia looking for anything that might give her a clue to Doogle’s whereabouts. The tv was on mute in the background, tuned to the local news channel, in hopes that something might come up there.
Her phone, lying on the table in front of her, beeped. Without thinking, she picked it up. “Don’t hang up,” said the voice of Mr. Kintsugi. “Please, Mercy, don’t hang up.”
Despite herself, and the fears that had been plaguing her since her last confrontation with Kintsugi, she did as he requested. “What?” she demanded.
“Look, they told me what happened in the car park after you left my office,” he began. “I just want you to know that it had nothing to do with me,” a slight pause, “or with the Foundation for that matter.”
“Oh, really?” she queried. “It just happened to occur two minutes after I left you?”
“I know you’ll find it hard to believe,” he responded, “but that’s exactly right.”
“Sure,” she said. “Right.”
“Believe me, Mercy. Please believe me,” responded Kintsugi.
Whatever he said next seemed to trail off into the distance as Mercy’s attention became distracted, and she found herself staring hard at the tv screen. A painfully thin barefoot, platinum blonde girl in a ragged denim mini-skirt was staring out at her, alternately talking and shouting as the camera slowly moved in to show her face in close-up.
“How in hell?” asked Mercy as she un-muted her tv and cranked up the volume. “It can’t be.”
The voice-over on her tv was saying, “… remains unidentified. If you have ever seen her before, or maybe even think you recognise her, please call the following number…”
The camera pulled back just as the girl turned away and Mercy could see her long hair trailing down her back, coming to an end less than an inch above the hem of her skirt. “That’s her all right,” said Mercy.
“That’s who?” asked Kintsugi.
She cut him off in the middle of whatever he was saying and keyed in the number.
Robert Kupferberg stood staring out of The Tempel window for several minutes after the conclave members had left the room. The longer he stood there, the more it seemed to him that the ordered world which he had created was now endangered.
No-one had addressed him by name since that day, more than a decade earlier, when he had initiated The Belonging with a following of just a dozen believers in his rented third-floor apartment on Mission Street. They called him The One, because that was what he told them to call him.
His schtick was far from original but he was a committed believer in the maxim that if it ain’t broke you shouldn’t try to fix it.
Like many before him, he was selling a fistful of intangible concepts – faith, belief, the promise of a better future and more – to anyone who seemed to need them. With that in mind, he had taught himself how to speak in incomprehensible, impenetrable non-sequiturs because he knew, as any decent snake-oil salesman has always known, that the content of what he propounded mattered infinitely less than the conviction with which he propounded it.
He knew that, whether it was Scientology, Christianity or Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the essence of any successful religion is to promise enough gullible people something on which you’ll never have to deliver, in return for regular donations of money.
In this respect, Kupferberg had come to understand, even the most extreme cults shared one of their core tenets with mainstream religions – their business model was founded on controlling the herd through carefully engineered rules about marriage, sin, guilt, worship and more.
As the years passed, he became the exemplar of a man made for the times in which he lived. The invention of social media had made it easier than ever before for someone like him to locate and connect with sufficient numbers of precisely the kind of suckers he needed to provide him with a lifestyle which would otherwise require years of hard work to earn.
Within five years of founding The Belonging his dozen believers had grown to over a thousand and since then the numbers regularly contributing to his ever-swelling bank accounts had been increasing exponentially year on year.
The downside of the success of The Belonging was that he now found himself, the only person he trusted, obliged to spend long hours simply trying to maintain its momentum.
The 2019 pandemic had produced some diametrically opposed effects. The fear it engendered had turned millions on to mainstream religions, but, disastrously for him, many of those millions were exactly the same people who might otherwise have adopted cult philosophies like his.
With these thoughts uppermost in his mind, the failure of his two chosen Angels to eradicate Mercy Yoo and, even more recently, the as yet unexplained disappearance of a young, female Belonging devotee, disturbed him enormously. It seemed to Kupferberg that something drastic needed to be done to restore some equilibrium to his creation. Unfortunately, no matter how long he stood at the window, nothing concrete was presenting itself to him as the definitive course of action.
He turned away from the window, swiped his index finger across the integrated tele-link embedded on the back of his right wrist, selected the scramble setting, and spoke two words. “Mercy Yoo,” he said.
It rang but no-one picked up and, rather than leave any kind of message, Kupferberg de-linked. “Later,” he thought to himself. “Later.”
For Albert Bach there was only one thing worse than seeing Segarini possessed by Bhalak. It was the sight of Segarini in the aftermath of possession.
Gruesome though it was, while Bhalak controlled Segarini, there was a vitality, a vibrancy about him. Once Bhalak was banished, Segarini was left lifeless, listless, like a husk of a man, for several hours.
“Here,” said Albert. “Have another sip of your coffee.”
Segarini raised himself up onto one elbow and took the cup from Albert. “Thanks, Albie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Albert smiled. “You’d be fine. You’d keep yourself busy disposing of all those worthless drones out there. You’ll always be in demand. There aren’t many who can do what you do.”
Segarini winced. “I suppose,” he conceded. “It wouldn’t be the same though. It’s you that keeps me on track.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” said Albert. He knew, however, that once Segarini was fully recovered, his own importance would be diminished again. He would become nothing more than the ever-faithful Albie, loyal and subservient. “Before you I had no-one.”
The big screen in front of them switched to displaying an image of an extraordinary-looking woman, and it caught Segarini’s attention. “Turn that up,” he told Albert, suddenly becoming more alert.
The woman was Elfin Nano and, as the volume came up, the presenter was giving some brief biographical details as an introduction into an item about the race between major pharmaceutical conglomerates to develop innovative new means of fighting the threat of possible future pandemics.
” … but while most of the majors have been focussing on more traditional vaccine developments,” said the presenter, “others are rumoured to be taking more radical approaches to the problem. This is Elfin Nano, whose company Nanovit is said to be branching out from its core health food business with a strategy that combines a new vaccine with a radical delivery method.”
Albert barely heard the voiceover. He was more interested in the spark of life that was beginning to re-animate Segarini’s face. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she, boss?” he asked.
“Quite fabulous,” replied Segarini, clearly captivated.
For Albert, Segarini’s fascination with beautiful women was as near as he ever came to having his own real-world sex life. However, it seemed to him that this one, this Elfin Nano, was something else again. Albert saw immediately that there was something untoward about her, a curious quality that was neither here nor there. He felt instinctively that there was an inherent wrongness about her, and it alarmed him that Segarini saw only her superficial loveliness.
The image of Elfin dissolved into the logo of the Hu Foundation as the voiceover said, “and another player is the South Korea-based Hu Foundation, whose San Francisco outpost is thought to be developing an even more revolutionary potential solution …”
Segarini quickly lost interest. “Turn it down,” he said.
Albert was happy to do so. Although he had been pleased to see the life returning to Segarini’s face, he was in equal measure disturbed by the extent to which the mere sight of Elfin’s face had captivated him.
“So,” commented Albert, “what about those vaccines then?”
“Vaccines?” queried Segarini, who had evidently registered nothing but the face of Elfin Nano. “What vaccines?”
“I know that girl,” said Mercy.
It had been an instinctive impulse to call the contact number for the runaway girl on the tv, but already Mercy was wondering if it had been the right thing to do. Logically, she knew she had enough on her plate trying to locate Rother, without becoming further distracted by a teenage runaway.
Earlier, when she had called Doogle’s mobile, it rang in their living room. This was worrying, but then again he had never been umbilically attached to his phone, and had left it at home on several occasions previously. She had also called round several of their closest friends, and rang a couple of their favourite bars, but no-one had seen him.
The last time she could remember being worryingly out of touch with Doogle had been two years earlier in Naples, when the pair of them had snuck in to the city’s vast labyrinth of underground tunnels after hours. Almost inevitably, stumbling around in the light of their mobiles, they had become separated and when she tried to call him she discovered there was no reception. She could still remember the relief when, after about five minutes, they finally found each other, and hugged and kissed as if the separation had lasted years.
There were no obvious signs of any kind of scuffle in the apartment, and none of the neighbours had seen or heard anything untoward. Mercy was at a loss to know what to do next, so she reported Doogle as missing to her local precinct, the Mission Police Station. They had dutifully recorded all the information she could give them, and assured her they would be looking into the matter, but she felt that they were unlikely to begin a full-scale investigation until he had been missing for a while longer. She decided against telling them about the attack on her in the underground garage, at least until she had a chance to talk it over with Doogle.
For the moment, calling to report that she had met the runaway girl offered a welcome distraction. In a way, she was quite grateful to have something else to think about. Maybe Doogle would just turn up.
“Is she a friend, a relative?” asked the woman on the other end of the contact number.
“Neither,” replied Mercy. “I met her on the Embarcadero several weeks back. She tried to get me to go with her to a cafe to fill in a survey. I was immediately suspicious because I’ve been approached like that on the street before and it’s usually a pretext to get people talking, get their personal details, and ask them if they’re interested in joining some kind of pyramid selling outfit, or some religious cult or whatever.”
“Hmmmmm,” said the voice. “And did that turn out to be what she was doing?”
“Yes. She was trying to get me interested in joining, signing up to, The Belonging. You know them?”
“Oh, yes, we know them,” confirmed the woman.
“Usually I just blank these kinds of cult muggers,” said Mercy, “but there was something about this particular girl, I think she called herself Coral, a kind of a haunted look I suppose, that made me stop and talk to her. I saw it again when I watched your tv appeal … is she OK?”
The woman confirmed that the girl was in no immediate danger but she was very confused and seemed vulnerable and afraid of something she couldn’t adequately explain.
“That sounds right,” said Mercy. “That’s what she was like when I met her. I bought her a cotton candy, and we stood on Pier 39 and watched the sea lions while we talked. That sort of calmed her down a little. She seemed to like that.”
“Give me a second,” said the woman. The phone went silent for a few moments before the woman returned. “Listen, I’ve no right to ask you this, and I’ll totally understand if you refuse, but this kid is a mess, we get lots like this, and we don’t have the resources to look after them all …”
Mercy interrupted. “What is it you want me to do?”
“Like I said, I’ve no right to ask you this, but you seem like a nice woman. Would you consider coming down here to the Grace Volunteer Refuge, just to speak to her? We’re not far from Union Square. Where are you?”
Mercy sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t actually know her. I just met her for an hour or so…”
“Sure,” answered the refuge volunteer. “I get it. She’s not your problem. I absolutely understand your reluctance to get involved.”
Hanging the phone up, Mercy knew, would be the sensible thing to do but once again she remembered the haunted look she had seen in Coral’s face. She sighed again. “OK. Give me the address. I can be there in ten, maybe fifteen, minutes.”
CHAPTER 16 : Someone Else’s Dream
Holding a rational conversation with a complete stranger entirely enveloped in protective clothing was something Rother found disturbing. Not quite as disturbing, though, as the awareness that a symbiotic gestalt entity, Kane, was living inside him and had access to his every thought.
“Tell me how you first became aware of what was happening to you,” suggested the latest unknown man in a transparent face mask on the far side of the see-through screen around his bed. Before Rother could reply, his inquisitor turned away to deal with another masked individual who had tapped his shoulder.
The distraction enabled Rother and Kane to briefly resume their attempts to work out what was happening to them. “Well, what do you think now?” asked Kane.
“You know what I think,” replied Rother. “You know everything I think.”
“Granted. It’s just that sometimes it helps if you organise your thoughts into coherent sentences for me. I’m beginning to think that there may be more value in your ‘language’ communication system than I first realised.”
“Nice of you to say so,” said Rother, wondering if his thinly-veiled sarcasm was translating accurately from the words he was forming into the thoughts Kane would be receiving.
“Yes, thanks,” answered Kane. “It’s all there. The words. The undercurrent of wry humour. The implication that you don’t actually want me to respond to the remark. It all comes across. So, believe me, the process of organising your thoughts into words, even if you don’t speak them aloud, does seem to help.”
They paused briefly when the masked man turned to look towards them, but he immediately turned away again to continue consulting with his colleague.
“So,” repeated Kane, “What do you think?”
“I think we’ve been kidnapped,” stated Rother. “I assume you know the word ‘kidnapped’?”
“Abducted. Held captive. Yes, I’ve got that,” said Kane. “I’m just flipping through your hazy recollections of the book by Robert Louis Stevenson. I like it, I think. If we survive perhaps we could read it together. I’d enjoy that.”
“Yeah, OK,” thought Rother, reminding himself, but still finding it hard to comprehend, that he was speaking to an entity which was just weeks old. “First, can we try to focus on our current situation?”
“Whatever,” responded Kane, and it was clear to Rother that his symbiote was navigating the subtler niceties of the English language with little difficulty.
“I assume we must have been kidnapped from my apartment. I remember up to the moment when I went to …. where did I go? We had been talking about Mercy, and how hers was not a suitable host body for you, and we heard the front door opening and I went towards it … and the next thing was waking up here. There’s a big blank, a gap.”
Kane took over. “I can recall a little more. You opened the door into the hall, and two men came towards you, very fast. Both had facial coverings. One of them had a canister, an aerosol, in his hand and he was spraying it towards you as he approached. And then, like you, I recall nothing until we regained consciousness here.”
Their masked inquisitor was now giving them his full attention again. “So, where were we?” he asked, briefly flicking his eyes across the screen of a small tablet in his hand. “I think I was asking how you first became aware of what was happening to you,”
Rother launched, yet again, into a story which had become nothing more than a routine litany of the events, starting from the shaving incident a couple of days earlier, which had led up to his incarceration in this nameless place. As he spoke, he looked around, trying to make sense of his surroundings. The room had many of the attributes of a quarantine hospital combined with those of a scientific research facility, but no-one he had been able to speak with would tell him its name or location.
Neither had he been able to see Mercy or, for that matter, anyone he knew, since that cold, bright afternoon when they had trolleyed him in and strapped him down onto the bed.
He paused briefly in his recapitulation to ask the question which was now constantly uppermost in his thoughts, “Do you think I’m mad?”
After staring unblinkingly back at him for several agonisingly long seconds, the man shook his head slowly. “No, Mr. Rother,” he said. “I can see them, just as you can. You’re not insane. Definitely not insane. The problem myself and my colleagues are having here is that none of us can understand why you are still a living, apparently functioning, human being.”
Rother looked at the monitor suspended about halfway down his bed, and nodded. There on the screen, in disturbingly hi-def, he could see the top half of his body crawling with his infestation. His face, presumably because of Kane’s intervention, was looking significantly better, but his chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck and hair were still swarming with embedded white parasitical outgrowths.
They slithered past and over and around each other, and in and out of his skin, apparently at random. It was hard for him to imagine that any part of his body was not swarming with them, and yet he was still able to talk, to think, to rationalise, to recall his life before it had been like this.
Indeed, several of the strangers who had attended his bedside had, seeming unreasonably pleased with themselves, shown him scans of his entire frame from which it appeared incontrovertible that he was merging with this hideous horde. And yet he now called it Kane and, despite himself he was beginning to – he could think of no better term – like it.
Externally, there were certain elements which remained to suggest that he was a human being – the general shape of his body, plus his eyes, lips, ears and the general contours of what had once been his face.
However, he had come to the conclusion that those elements remained only because it was, at least for the moment, convenient for his symbiote to have a means by which Rother, and therefore Kane too, could communicate with other human beings.
Kane confirmed the thought for him. “Exactly. You are not currently functioning as you once did. Breathing, sweating, seeing, hearing … you may feel as if you are doing all of these things, but you are not. The nearest equivalent I can find in your memory is something called phantom limb syndrome.”
Rother decided he would prefer not to think too much about that horrific state of affairs for the moment. Instead, he returned to recounting, yet again, for the benefit of the latest stranger, everything he could remember since that moment when he had sliced off the head of the first of them. Then he stopped again and impulsively asked another question, “What if I’m just dreaming?”
The stranger cleared his throat and replied, “Then we’re both independently participating in the same dream, which is not a situation I’ve ever previously encountered in anyone else I’ve worked on.”
Rother derived very little comfort from that answer but, nonetheless, he found himself warming slightly to this particular inquisitor, so he ventured another of the questions that had been rolling around in whatever he now had that passed for a brain.
“What if it’s not me that’s mad? Or it’s not me that’s dreaming?” he asked. “What if it’s you? What if I’m just a character in your insane dream?”
CHAPTER 17 : Black Is Black
Kupferberg had pulled his chair away from the table and was now sitting beside the window, watching the city drift inexorably into night.
He was looking down at the tele-link on his right wrist, planning what he should do next. As he sat there, he was singing under his breath, “All night, all day, angels watching over you, my child.”
The particular angels he had in mind were Castor and Pollux, the pair he had assigned to assassinate Mercy Woo. In his mind, as he sang, Mercy was the child. By now, he assumed, if his instructions had been carried out, Castor and Pollux would be dead, or as good as. “I do apologise,” he said quietly, imagining himself talking to their corpses. “But you failed me.” However, as soon as those words had left his lips, he found himself regretting his decision to have them killed. They had been, after all, faithful believers, and had proved their loyalty to him on many previous occasions.
He swiped a finger over his tele-link and said, “Flip. Get Lucifer.”
Instantly, a thin, sallow face appeared on his link. “The One.” said the face. “How can I serve you?”
“Castor and Pollux. Are they dead yet?”
Lucifer Starkrost’s face took on a sorrowful aspect. “I regret to have to tell you that they have not yet been executed,” he reported. “It will be attended to at once.”
“No, Luci, no,” snapped his leader. “I have decided to spare them. Let them live, and do not under any circumstances apprise them of how close they came to termination. I will reprimand them myself when the opportunity arises.”
Starkrost was enormously relieved. “The One’s wishes are my wishes.” As Comms Controller for The Belonging, he had been alarmed by Kupferberg’s order to kill them. It had seemed completely beyond the remit of his function, but he had accepted it rather than openly defy The One.
Kupferberg cut the link abruptly and returned his thoughts to the more pressing matter of how best to approach the problem of Mercy Woo’s continued existence.
He thought back to the first time he had come across her name. It had been some days earlier while scanning routinely through the daily report he had been sent on the latest potential believer acquisitions. He had been struck immediately by an edited transcript of an unusually long encounter between a young Belonging Vanguard Analysis Servicer, Leda, and a potential believer, Mercy Woo.
The pair had spoken for almost an hour on Pier 39, both unaware that their encounter was being monitored through Leda’s implants. The transcript had been flagged up for Kupferberg’s attention by Starkrost initially because of its unusually long duration and, on closer examination, it seemed evident to him that there were indeed causes for concern in their interaction.
First of all, Mercy Woo had, at several points, encouraged Leda to question why she was a member of The Belonging. Leda had, like every Vanguard Analysis Servicer, been carefully prepped on how to deflect such questions but, as their talk had continued, it became clear that Mercy Woo’s words were having an effect. Leda seemed to be relaxing her guard, as if forming an inappropriate bond of trust with her. Rather than Leda convincing Mercy to take part in an initial survey, the tables were turning. Leda was opening up to Mercy in ways that Kupferberg found alarming.
Already by this point, he had become sufficiently concerned and intrigued to minimise the transcript and search online for Mercy Woo. Of the handful of Facebook and Twitter profiles that had come up, only one seemed a likely candidate. Educated to degree level at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, she now lived and worked in San Francisco as a researcher specialising in virology. She had posted a few videos and photographs, re-posted several others, but didn’t appear to be a frequent user of social media. She was also, he noted, strikingly easy on the eye.
Switching back to the transcript, he had reached the point at which Leda had opened up and told Mercy her real name. “I’m Leda now,” she said. “That’s what they called me. But I was born Coral Shannon. I suppose I’m Irish somewhere back along my ancestry, but I never knew my parents.”
“So you’re an orphan?” asked Mercy.
“Was,” replied Coral. “Until The Belonging took me in. I was thirteen. They gave me a name, made me feel part of a family… showed me how to walk the walk and talk the talk.” As she spoke those words, Coral raised her head up and assumed a noticeably more upright posture. She stared at Mercy with a look bordering on defiance.
“I’m sorry,” said Mercy. “I don’t follow. What do you mean?”
It took a few minutes, but eventually Mercy was able to extract an explanation of sorts from Coral. “Walk the walk and talk the talk”, was among the basic tenets of The Belonging, a simplistic, easily memorable catchphrase which sounded strong and meaningful but, ultimately, meant nothing. With a little encouragement, Mercy was able to draw out a couple more examples. The one Coral seemed to remember most clearly was, “Black is black; white is white.”
Mercy said nothing, but she was immediately concerned about the potential racial undertones of those words. As concise little nuggets of language, they appeared to be pithy and undeniable, but taken together they had undercurrents which alarmed her. They were not just frightening, but frighteningly clever manipulations of communication.
An awkward silence was developing between them so Mercy decided to say something. “So what about grey? Is there no grey?”
Coral replied like an automaton. “If we walk the walk, then grey is naught.” As she spoke she was anxiously fingering the thin leather belt that tightened the skirt around her waist.
Clearly this was another of The Belonging’s simplistic slogans, and Coral’s regurgitation of it suggested that the ‘re-education’ which had transformed her into Leda had been highly successful.
“You believe this?” asked Mercy.
Coral nodded but looked away into the corner of the room. “I did.”
“And now?” inquired Mercy.
“And now, I don’t know,” said Coral.
Reading those words, Kupferberg had become even more interested in Mercy Woo. How had she got under Leda’s skin so quickly? Was there more to this woman than had been obvious at first glance?
That had been how he first came to initiate a deeper investigation into Mercy Woo, which led him to her relationship with the freelance psychotherapy journalist Douglas Rother, and to her position at The Hu Foundation.
It was a small step from there to the conclusion that this was a woman who might prove to be a serious threat to The Belonging. Could it really have been just a coincidence that Leda had encountered her? Or had Mercy Woo somehow engineered their meeting to acquire information about The Belonging? She was after all, a virologist, and the 2019 pandemic had turned many believers into doubters.
The more he had turned these ideas over in his head, the more he had become convinced that she posed a real threat to everything he had achieved with The Belonging.
Having reached this conclusion, he had assigned two of his Angels, Castor and Pollux, to eradicate the threat, but they had failed him.
He was still sitting at the window when his tele-link had vibrated and flashed an incoming message warning. “The One. Forgive this intrusion but believer Leda appears to have deserted The Belonging,” said the face of Lucifer Starkrost on its screen. “Our media monitoring team has logged a news item about her on Local Channel 7, describing her as a runaway.”
Kupferberg had then watched the Channel 7 video, and it set his mind racing even faster. What if Mercy Woo was not merely a danger, but actually the reason for Leda’s defection from The Belonging? What then?
CHAPTER 18 : Mercy Dash
Having agreed to meet with Coral, Mercy scrawled a brief note for Doogle to explain where she was going. She left it prominently displayed on their living room table, held in place by a pepper grinder. She also left a message giving the same details on Doogle’s phone.
As she left the apartment, she stopped briefly at the door to look back and make certain she had placed the note in a position where he was sure to see it if he returned. “When he returns,” she said, to convince herself. She was far from certain that going to meet Coral was a smart idea, but felt she had exhausted the immediate possibilities of locating Doogle and told herself again that there was still the possibility that he might turn up while she was out.
She made her way back to her E-Class and set off, hoping against hope that Doogle would call her while she was on the road. The journey passed without incident, except that her drive to the refuge took her through Union Square where she was intrigued to see that despite the lateness of the hour, there was a long queue snaking from the entrance to Shoppingness all the way to the end of the block and then out of sight around the corner.
Her initial surprise at the sight evaporated when she remembered the ads that had been running on tv, radio and online for several days trumpeting the arrival of the new limited edition Belonging tees. They were set to go on sale the following morning, so presumably the queue consisted of the early birds, willing to sleep out all night to be among the first to get their hands onto and their contours into the latest Belonging merch.
“Crazies,” she said aloud. Despite owning, and still occasionally wearing, a knockoff v-neck Belong tee she was very much of the opinion that these people were suckers.
As she cruised past she could see them anxiously checking their wrists. Those whose wrist IDs or ID Passes were coded with the letters EQ would have lowest priority, those with MORE had higher priority. Those with MOST didn’t even have to wait in the queue. They had all earned their priority ratings from the number of ‘blessings’ they had bestowed on The One. ‘Blessings’, of course, was no more than a euphemism for financial contributions.
“I guess,” thought Mercy, “a generation dumb enough to worry about Credit Scores is dumb enough to be suckered by The Belonging.”
This new tee range, however, did sound intriguing, even to Mercy. According to the ads, they were made from a specially developed new material weave which enabled the slogan to change. The word ‘belong’, for example, could evolve randomly into ‘be long’, which in turn could become ‘belonging’ or just ‘longing’.
What surprised her even more than the length of the queue was that so many San Franciscans could apparently afford upwards of $1,000 for a black tee with white print on the front. Maybe it did change as advertised, but Mercy still considered it well out of her price range, even allowing for her increased salary.
She turned off of Union Square and parked in a space almost directly across the street from the unprepossessing dark grey door into the Grace Volunteer Refuge, tucked in between a couple of upscale stores. She was welcomed in by Mrs. Ingleby, the volunteer she had spoken with on the phone, who took her through to a small room where Coral lay asleep on a single bed.
“Someone to see you, darling,” said Mrs Ingleby.
The girl opened her eyes, swung her long legs over the side of the bed and sat up but, when she looked at Mercy, there was no sign of recognition.
“Hi, Coral. Do you remember me? Pier 39? Candy floss?”
Coral smiled, but shook her head. Mercy and Mrs Ingleby exchanged sympathetic glances but it seemed to Mercy that Coral’s condition had deteriorated since they last met. The girl had been pretty but fragile, on the frail side of slender even then, but now she seemed emaciated, her skin dry and flaky, her long platinum blonde hair thin and dirty.
Mercy tried again. “Pier 39? We had candy floss together and we watched the sea lions.”
Coral looked up again and studied Mercy’s face. “Sorry,” she said. “So sorry. Have you come to take me back?”
Mercy shook her head and sat down on the bed beside her. “Do you want to go back?” Coral said nothing. Mercy looked up at Mrs. Ingleby and asked, “Has she eaten anything?”
“Nothing. We’ve tried but it’s like she doesn’t trust us, or doesn’t trust the food maybe. So we’re really just trying to keep her warm and comfortable and hoping to find someone who knows her.”
Mercy explained the little she knew about Coral to Mrs. Ingleby who sighed despairingly. “We get quite a few of these,” she confirmed. “Usually young girls. Not specifically from The Belonging, but a lot of cult kids in general. They’re all damaged, one way or another. We’ve got seventeen lost souls in here at the moment and three of those are cult kids.”
Coral was still staring into Mercy’s eyes when, unexpectedly, her face lit up. “Candy floss,” she said. “Yeah. You bought me candy floss.”
“That’s right,” said Mercy, delighted. She could not resist slipping an arm round Coral’s shoulders and giving her a gentle squeeze. Coral took her other hand and squeezed her fingers in return. Mercy turned the girl’s hand over to get a better look at something she thought she had seen on Coral’s wrist. “What’s that?” she asked.
Coral didn’t respond but Mrs Ingleby explained. “It’s a plaster.”
“Did she hurt herself?”
“No, it’s not self-harming, nothing like that.” Mrs Ingleby seemed reluctant to explain any further but Mercy pressed her. “It’s not something we should really do,” revealed the volunteer. “The insurance doesn’t cover it, and it’s probably a violation of individual rights…”
“What is?” demanded Mercy. “This sounds, well, irregular, to say the least. What have you done to her?”
Mrs. Ingleby looked away. “A lot of these kids,” she began, “they can’t look after themselves so sometimes we have to do things to help them.”
“Such as?” asked Mercy, becoming increasing concerned and confused about what was happening to Coral. Had the girl climbed out of the frying pan only to fall into the fire? She began to wonder about the Grace Volunteer Refuge. She had never even heard of it before she’d spoken to Mrs. Ingleby earlier that day. “What are you people?”
Mrs. Ingleby was clearly uncomfortable but, after few seconds of hesitation, she continued. “We have a young man, a doctor, who comes by the shelter a couple of times every week. He examines our new arrivals, checks them out, makes sure they’re not suffering from any infectious diseases and such.”
Coral, realising they were speaking about her injured arm, now pulled her hand away from Mercy’s. “He’s a nice young man, a lovely boy, Doctor Vincenti,” continued Mrs. Ingleby. “He doesn’t charge us anything. He does it all free, even though he’s probably breaking the law.”
“Does what?” persisted Mercy.
“He does little operations. Only if it’s absolutely necessary,” said Mrs Ingleby. “He shouldn’t. He knows he shouldn’t, but the people who find themselves in here can’t afford medical insurance…”
“Good God,” said Mercy, drawing Coral a little closer. “What has he done to Coral?”
Mrs Ingleby drew a very deep breath before carrying on. “Coral was unconscious when she was first brought in. Dr. Vincenti examined her while she was still asleep and he noticed, well, … irregularities … under the skin of her wrist.”
Mercy felt she could guess what was coming next. She had heard of cases like this, read about them online.
“She had some kind of tiny monitoring device embedded in her wrist,” explained Mrs. Ingleby. “Somebody was tracking her. Dr. Vincenti told us and advised that it would probably be in the girl’s best interest if the device was removed. We’ve had this before, usually with the cult kids, like Coral.”
If what Mrs Ingleby was saying was true, and Mercy had no way of knowing, what the doctor had done was probably for the best. “So the doctor surgically removed the tracking device?” she asked.
Mrs Ingleby nodded. “It was a very small procedure. Nothing major at all.”
“But completely illegal.”
“Completely,” conceded Mrs. Ingleby. “But sometimes we have to do these things in the best interests of kids like Coral. They’re so vulnerable. Dr. Vincenti risks being struck off, or being sued, every time he does this kind of thing.”
In the light of Mrs Ingleby’s explanation, Mercy felt a little more relieved. If it was true, the doctor and the refuge had done the right thing. “If it’s true,” she reminded herself. Gently, she took Coral’s hand again. “Can I take a look at your wrist?”
Coral didn’t pull away, and nodded her agreement. Mercy delicately lifted the edges of the plaster and could see the small scar that had been left after the removal of the monitoring device. It didn’t prove anything definitively, but it did seem to square with Mrs Ingleby’s version of events.
“Please,” implored Mrs Ingleby, “don’t tell anyone about this. We could get shut down.”
Mercy was thinking fast, trying to decide what might be the best thing to do in these decidedly strange circumstances. “Have you still got the tracking device?” she asked.
“In the office safe,” said Mrs. Ingleby.
Coral’s voice, unexpectedly loud and clear, stopped their conversation in its tracks. “The angels will be coming for me,” she said.
CHAPTER 19 : Hu Cares
“Not now,” snarled Kintsugi, as he pushed through a pair of heavy swing doors in the ICU of the Bayview Aurora Residence. “We can do this later.”
The doctor who was holding a syringe up in front of Kintsugi’s face disagreed. “No,” he remonstrated. “You need to do this now.”
Kintsugi did not break his stride along the corridor. “What the fuck is it? You people always think everything has to be done right away. Everything is always urgent.”
“Trust me, this is,” argued the doctor. “You yourself said it was a priority when we started working on it.”
Kintsugi brushed him aside and continued at pace. “All hell is breaking loose, Doctor …” He took a moment to peer at the man’s badge. “Doctor fucking I can’t pronounce whatever that says…”
The man was clearly dismayed. “Doctor Narasimhamurthy,” he explained. “You put me in charge of this project to develop an anti-virus against the Acceleration virus…”
“I just told you, all hell is breaking loose,” shouted Kintsugi. “My only priority right now is screwing whatever information I can out of Douglas Rother. Anything else can wait.”
He pushed the doctor brusquely aside with such force that the man clattered backwards into the corridor wall knocking the breath out of his lungs. Realising that his response might have been unduly harsh, Kintsugi turned his head towards Narasimhamurthy and shouted, “Sorry, Doctor. If you’re still here in an hour, I’ll maybe think about it.”
Barging in through the next ward door, Kinstugi strode over to Rother’s bedside and briefly raised his mask, revealing his face.
“I think I know you,” said Rother. “Aren’t you one of Mercy’s bosses?”
“Correct. I am Mr. Kintsugi,” the man confirmed. “You may well have met me at a Foundation event, maybe a dinner, or a party? I’m flattered that you remember me but must confess that I do not recognise you.”
Rother snorted in derision. “Well, you wouldn’t, would you?”
“I suppose not,” said Kintsugi.
“Where’s Mercy?” asked Rother. He wanted to sit up and confront Kintsugi, but the restraints on his forearms held him firmly in place.
“I wish I knew,” replied Kintsugi.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Rother. “The last time I saw her she was on her way to work…”
“And the last time I saw her,” Kintsugi stated in slow, measured terms, “she was running out of my office.” Rother had little choice but to listen as Kintsugi outlined his version of events, starting with their meeting in his office, and ending with the assassination attempt on Mercy in the Foundation’s underground car park.
Rother was horrified. “What are you saying? What are you telling me? Is she OK? Has she been hurt?”
Mr. Kintsugi waited impatiently until Rother had run out of his stream of questions. “I can assure you that Mercy was not harmed. I have been informed that two men, independent security guards who just happened to be in the car park, were killed, but she by some miracle escaped in her car.”
Rother struggled to sound calm as he asked, “So where is she now?”
“As I said, I wish I knew,” responded Kintsugi. “I managed to contact her by phone at your apartment but she cut me off before I could explain…”
“Explain?” exploded Rother, straining once more against the straps on his arms. “Explain what? Why your goons tried to kill Mercy? What the hell is going on here?”
Once again, the other man remained silent until Rother had calmed down a little. Then he said, “The men who tried to kill her were not mine. They had nothing to do with the Hu Foundation. The police and my own staff are still trying to identify them conclusively.”
“So they’re still out there? Still on the loose? Why should I believe any of this?” Rother continued to spew out questions until, unexpectedly, he started to feel calmer.
Kane’s voice appeared in his head. “That’s me,” it said. “I’ve significantly upped some of your neurotransmitter levels to help you calm down.”
“I don’t want to calm down!” Rother said. “I want to know what’s happened to Mercy.”
“I completely understand,” said Kintsugi. “That’s perfectly natural.”
“Oh, fuck-a doodle doo,” thought Rother. “Did I say that aloud?”
“You certainly did,” confirmed Kane. “If you still intend to keep my presence, my very existence, from your captors, you must exercise greater control over your mouth.”
Rother closed his eyes and kept them tight shut. “Between what Kintsugi is telling me and you manipulating my neurotransmitter levels,” he thought, “it’s hard to be sure exactly what I’m doing at any given moment.”
“Can you hear me, Mr. Rother?” Kintsugi’s voice seemed to come from many miles distant, and it was all Rother could do to open his eyelids a little and nod his head as a response.
More figures had now arrived at the bedside, consulting their hand-held devices, checking Rother’s vital signs, looking anxious and animated. Rother studied them as closely as his woozy condition would allow, and noted that one of them, a lanky blonde fellow near the back, was wearing a white lab coat with a logo, the words Hu Cares, embroidered on its breast pocket.
None of these new arrivals spoke but, once Kintsugi had ascertained that Rother was conscious, he started again. “I’m sure you want to know what’s happening to you. The simple answer is that we don’t know much more than you,” he paused, frowned, then resumed. “From what we’ve been able to observe, you appear to have been infected by a virus, but it’s a virus unlike anything that has ever existed before.”
Rother was sorely tempted to respond with a sarcastic, “You don’t say?” but stopped himself.
“Well done,” thought Kane. “The less you give away the better, don’t you think?”
To Rother’s surprise, Kintsugi’s next set of remarks revealed much more than he had imagined they would. “The virus which has infected you is an artificial creation, manufactured in complete secrecy in our labs at the Hu Foundation. It was intended as a ‘smart’ virus which could potentially put us several steps ahead in the race to find new approaches to fighting pandemics.”
Although much of what Kintsugi was saying was no more than confirmation of what he had already learned, Rother found it comforting to have the information from a second source.
“As far as we can ascertain, this virus has somehow become exponentially ‘smarter’ than we had intended. I know this sounds like a bad sci-fi movie plot, but the virus appears to have mutated or evolved into some kind of sentient entity, or entities.” Kintsugi paused briefly, looked directly into Rother’s eyes, and said, “You don’t seem unduly surprised by what I’m telling you. In fact, you appear to be remarkably composed.”
“You think?” deadpanned Rother. “Trust me, I’m rivetted. Go on.”
Kintsugi nodded. “There’s not much more I can tell you, except that to the best of our knowledge these entities, these creatures, exist in only one location – your body.”
“How can they know such a thing?” asked Kane. “Even I don’t know if there are others like me.”
“I suspect that Kintsugi, like the good Foundation executive he is, is being economical with his facts.” responded Rother. “There are presumably many things they don’t want to share with me. And he did say, ‘to the best of our knowledge’, so who knows, maybe that’s true.”
“You don’t trust him, do you?”
“Not as far as I could throw him,” thought Rother.
“And how far might that be?” responded Kane, then immediately retracted the question. “Oh. I see. It’s a figure of speech. Sorry. Those can take a couple of seconds for me to figure out.”
Rother smiled. He found Kane’s confusion comforting.
CHAPTER 20 : The Rob1ns
“Your Rob1ns are ready.”
Elfin looked up and saw Gregor Challis standing a few feet in front of em, head bowed down and his huge eyes closed. In his outstretched right hand were two Rob1ns.
“At last,” sighed Elfin. “It seems to have been an eternity…” There was no-one in the Great Hall other than Elfin and Challis, and eir voice echoed across its spacious vaulted chamber.
Challis raised his head and opened his eyes so that he was staring directly at Elfin’s lips. “This is a most auspicious day for Nanovit. Your Rob1ns are the heralds of a new dawn.”
Elfin extended a slender arm and pointed a long fingernail at eir Chief Science Enabler. Slowly, she turned eir hand over, opened it wide and beckoned with eir fingernail. “Here,” ey said.
Challis stepped forward and gently placed both Rob1ns onto Elfin’s outstretched palm. Ey raised them up to her face and examined them in detail. “Exquisite,” ey said. “All else is in readiness?”
“Everything,” confirmed Challis. “I have, just moments ago, allocated the control functions to your lower right neck implant. One double tap will initiate the Rob1ns, one downward swipe will recall them to your hand.”
Elfin nodded. Ey could feel eirself trembling with excitement and anticipation but resisted the temptation to set them off immediately. Instead, ey stared down at the tiny artificial birds, and thought back to eir childhood, when everything had seemed simpler.
In eir mind’s eye Elfin could see that perfectly clear day when eir mother had come to the back door of their small town family home. Ey felt ey could hear her mother’s voice as she looked out into the garden and said, “Look, Elfin, the robins are flying in and out of the shed. They must be building a nest in there, don’t you think?”
It seemed to Elfin that the sun had shone throughout that entire summer during which ey grew to love those two little robins. Ey watched the female flying over the high wall in and out of the garden, carrying dead leaves, moss, strands of hair and occasional small white feathers. “We mustn’t go into the shed,” eir mother had said. “If we disturb them, they might abandon the nest.”
The family Siamese, Siam, had to be kept indoors for days on end, during which Elfin would sit out in the shade of the Japanese Maple tree at the bottom of the garden watching the birds come and go. Every morning, ey would put out food for them and as the summer wore on, ey felt they were coming to trust em more and more.
Ey longed to peep into the shed but eir mother kept a watchful eye on eir. “Surely,” Elfin thought, “they know me so well. They trust me. They wouldn’t mind….”
It was on a hot day with the sun at its height, not one cloud in the sky, that mother had to pop out to the shops briefly. “Be a good girl,” she admonished Elfin. “You can watch them, but don’t go near the shed.”
Inevitably, Elfin had been drawn into the shed by the irresistible lure of eir infatuation with those little birds. Ey had immediately seen where the nest was, its location betrayed by nesting materials protruding from an ancient, rusting kettle high up on a shelf. Despite eirself, ey reached up and took one white feather which ey could cherish as a keepsake. The robins set up such a fuss that ey retreated immediately, back out into the garden.
From that day on, ey had never seen her darling robins again.
“Will you activate them now?” inquired Challis. “If you do so, you will also, of course, be priming the entire…”
Elfin snapped out of eir daydream, and refocused eir gaze on the Rob1ns in the palm of eir hand. “I do not need to be reminded,” ey told him. “Has the nesting material been put out?”
“Dead leaves, moss, hair, a few little white feathers, just as you instructed,” said Challis, turning his face towards eir. “I even sourced a dozen old kettles and have had them placed at safe heights.”
“Don’t look at me like that,” ey said.
“Like what?” asked Challis. “You always think I’m looking at you. What do you mean?”
“Do I?” ey countered. “It’s just that sometimes…”
“I know my eyes are unusually large,” he replied. “There’s nothing I can do about that, but I assure you I’m not staring at you.”
“Well don’t,” insisted Elfin. “Just don’t.” Ey turned away from him and returned eir gaze towards the Rob1ns. “And you have programmed them so that they know what to do?”
“They will behave precisely as organic robins would,” Challis assured her. “They are imprinted with the same characteristics as wild robins.”
Elfin did not want to let the tiny creatures leave eir hand. This was what ey had hoped for, what ey had imagined might happen, when ey was a girl back in the family garden. This had been eir childhood dream, but ey knew ey could only re-live it if ey activated the Rob1ns.
Overcoming eir reluctance, Elfin felt tears welling up in eir eyes as ey double-tapped the top of eir lower right neck implant. Ey felt the stirring of the air as eir Rob1ns tested out their wings and then fluttered up into the Great Hall. “Goodbye,” ey whispered under eir breath, and then they were gone.
“They will return,” pointed out Challis. “You will see them as they go about collecting their materials and building their nest. And, of course, you can monitor everything they are seeing through their integral cameras.”
Elfin knew he was right. Ey also knew it could never quite be the same, not really.
The bandages which Smiddy was winding round his head were not quite long enough for the purpose, but by safety-pinning a couple of them together he was able to make do.
He had washed and disinfected the wounds on the front and back of his skull and had applied large adhesive foam dressings, so the bandages were a secondary measure. “Better safe than sorry,” he thought to himself as he completed the job.
The medical appointment letter which Haggis had found in a bin at Mr. Jong’s apartment still lay on the table in front of him. He read it through again. “Second reminder. Please ring the number below to arrange an appointment to discuss the results of your most recent examination.’”
Smiddy was far from confident that it would prove significant as a way to establish important facts about Jong but it was all he had. If he was to get a jump on Elfin, he knew he had to pursue every possibility, no matter how unlikely.
It seemed significant to Smiddy that it was a second reminder. Why had Mr. Jong ignored the first letter? Either he didn’t consider it important, or maybe it made him anxious. Maybe he felt there was something so seriously wrong with his health that he was reluctant to find out the results of his examination. Whichever was the case, Smiddy felt he had to make that call.
“Reddington-Hall Surgical?” he asked.
“Right first time,” replied the receptionist. “How can I help you?”
Smiddy had his spiel thought-out in advance. He introduced himself as the lawyer representing Mr. Jong Min-Jun who, unfortunately, had recently passed away. As such, of course, he was charged with clearing up all outstanding matters on behalf of the deceased.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “we’ve been having difficulty establishing a precise cause of death for our client which, of course, we need for the coroner. We came across a recent appointment reminder from Reddington-Hall Surgical when we were clearing things up at his apartment…”
The receptionist interrupted. “You realise that client confidentiality would prevent us from ….”
“Certainly,” confirmed Smiddy. “Under normal circumstances, of course. But these are far from normal circumstances. Mr. Jong passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, and he has no close relatives that we’ve been able to locate…”
“Exactly what is it that you want? I can’t promise anything, you understand? I’ll have to check it with Dr. Reddington.”
Having anticipated exactly this response, Smiddy was ready. “I completely understand. How about I give you the coroner’s number and she’ll confirm what I’m telling you? Then you can get the OK from Dr. Reddington, and Betsy, that’s the coroner, Betsy Andriessen, can get someone to drop by your office and pick up your file on our client?”
One of the advantages of having spent several years in Dispatch at Nanovit was that Smiddy had acquired numerous fake IDs, letterheads and permits which came in handy at moments like this.
The receptionist was hesitant. “Well, I’m not sure. Dr. Reddington isn’t in the surgery this afternoon, and I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Well, there’s got to be a first time for everything, hasn’t there?” laughed Smiddy. “So you haven’t been in the job very long then?”
“Just a couple of months,” she confirmed.
Smiddy congratulated himself and thought, “This is going to be a piece of cake.” Buoyed up by that fact, he resumed, “Look, there’s no rush. And I really don’t want to push you into anything, but from our perspective, it’s important to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. I’m sure you understand that…”
“Well, yes,” agreed the receptionist. “Of course.”
“So let me make this formal. I’ll get an e-mail right across to you, confirming that we’ve spoken, and giving you all the contact details and information you’ll need to get this cleared by Dr. Reddington. Then I’ll call you back in an hour or so and we’ll see where we’ve got to. What’s your e-mail address?”
He fired off the e-mail and settled down to wait.
Gregor Challis took a few backward steps until he was out of earshot from Elfin before turning to leave the room.
Looking back, he could see that the Rob1ns were already searching around for potential nest-building locations, criss-crossing above his head, clicking, whistling and ticking as they went.
“At least you can’t shit,” he thought to himself. He wondered how long it would be before Elfin realised that they also couldn’t lay eggs, and would simply carry on building nests over and over again.
He hoped ey wouldn’t mind but, knowing how unlikely that was, he started planning in the back of his head what he might say if and when ey eventually confronted him about it. The fact that ey hadn’t actually specified a requirement that they should be able to lay eggs, he knew, would not make the slightest difference to Elfin.
Nor would it matter that the Rob1ns had been no more than an afterthought. The real purpose of Challis’ latest project had been perfecting the delivery mechanism for NanovitMatters’ Viral Expedient.
Challis was one of the few Nanovit execs who felt relatively secure. Elfin, he knew, was brilliant but unstable. However, as eir Chief Science Enabler he had an ace in the hole that gave him a measure of immunity from the worst of eir potential excesses. As the creator of eir interactive neck implants, he was virtually impossible to replace, because no-one else knew exactly how they functioned. He had built them from scratch to a design which only he fully understood.
The Rob1ns were a whim of Elfin’s, little more than set dressing, a ceremony, a ritual, with which to mark the inception of another of Challis’ creations, the nano-drone swarm designed to employ their on-board AI to deliver Nanovit’s most advanced anti-viral vaccine wherever and whenever it was felt to be required.
Officially, they would be marketed as Personal Anti-Viral Reconnaissance Systems under the brand name Raven Bug, and Elfin was convinced that, in a world lurching ever more to the far right, the global market was potentially massive. It seemed increasingly obvious, ever since the Covid19 pandemic had run rampant on every continent, that simply encouraging populations to get themselves vaccinated stood an exponentially smaller and smaller chance of controlling virus outbreaks in a world where those populations had lost all faith in their governments.
Elfin reasoned that, ultimately, whoever was running the world – dictators, military juntas, multi-national corporate businesses, religious fanatics, or even so-called democratic governments – was going to be faced with the stark reality that only a technologically cutting edge artificially intelligent system like Raven Bug could deliver any kind of certainty. In the war against ever-more dangerous, ever-mutating viruses, only a system like Raven Bug could eliminate the element of individual choice.
He was barely halfway back to his office before Challis started to laugh out loud. Three little words were echoing around in his head as he made his way along the corridors of the NanoVit Knowledge Institute. Again and again he heard them, until eventually there was nothing he could do to stop himself from speaking them out loud. “Release the swarm,” he snarled, between gleeful cackles. “Release the swarm.”
“Reddington-Hall Surgical?” asked Smiddy.
“Right first time,” answered the receptionist, exactly as she had done before. “How can I help you?”
Smiddy smiled to himself. “We spoke about an hour ago,” he reminded her. “Kelvin Watkiss. Lawyer for Mr. Jong. You were going to speak with Dr. Reddington…”
“I’m afraid I still haven’t been able to get in touch with him…”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” sympathised Smiddy. “But you got my e-mail? And you saw the confirmation from the coroner, Betsy Andriessen, that I arranged for her to send to you?”
“Well, yes … I’d like to help but I’ve never done anything of this sort before without Dr. Reddington’s say so…”
“Under these circumstances, surely,” soothed Smiddy, “you must understand the urgency of my request. What more can I do? I’ve given you my own personal written confirmation, and you’ve also heard from the coroner…”
“Well, yes, I suppose…”
“Listen, I’m prepared to be reasonable,” continued Smiddy. “How about this? Take another look at Betsy’s letter. You’ll see that her office is just a couple of blocks away from your surgery. Why don’t you ring her office, the coroner’s office, and ask if she’d be willing to send one of her staff round to the surgery to personally collect Mr. Jong Min-Jun’s file? If you can have it waiting on your desk, Betsy can send someone round and they could even just make a couple of quick scans of the relevant documents … they’ll sign for everything, you’ll be there to see it’s all above board, they won’t even need to take the originals. All they need is something to help confirm a cause of death. Is that not reasonable? You’d be helping me, you’d be helping the coroner, and you can explain it all to Dr. Reddington as soon as you see him. It’s all for the best…”
“Well…” said the receptionist, and Smiddy knew he had her. All he had to do now was wait for her call to the fake number he had given her for the coroner’s office and, with a little help from his vocal re-synthesis processor, answer it as Betsy Andriessen.
An hour and a half later he was downloading the images he had copied from Mr. Jong’s medical file. The way ahead was becoming clearer.