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.