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 13 : Self Service