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 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 10 : Into The Bhalak