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 took her for a candy floss, 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?”