CHAPTER 25 : Crimson Scorcher
Kane dropped a classic $64,000 question into their conversation so casually that Rother barely registered that it was a non-sequitur. They had been brainstorming ideas about how to escape, and coming up with nothing much, when Kane asked, “So, that scar under your left eye. How did you get that?”
Rother instinctively started to move a finger up towards the scar, but was restrained by the straps around his arms. “My scar?” he replied. “Guess I’ve had it all my life. I barely ever even notice it now.”
“Really,” queried Kane. “Are you sure?”
Rother looked up at the screen over his bed, and saw that the scar, although long since quite faded, was clearly visible. “Yeah. It’s just always been there.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” persisted Kane. “100%? Cross your heart and hope to die?”
Rother craned his neck to move his face a little closer to the camera which was monitoring him. “Sure,” he said. “Why? What’s it to you?”
The feeling that came from Kane resembled ripples on a quiet pond, a sensation of contentment, as if the symbiote was pleased with itself. “That’s not what you told me half an hour ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
The ripples continued, a little stronger, as Kane explained, “You told me that you got the scar under your eye when you were fifteen.”
“How could I have told you that?” Rother disagreed. “I just said, I don’t know when I got it. I’ve had it all my life.”
Kane was clearly delighted to be able to dispute Rother’s version of events. “It’s true enough,” he said, “that you don’t know when you got it, but that’s only because you don’t have any memory of when you got it.”
Rother laughed. “You’re just playing with words,” he said. “Are you trying to mess with my head? What’s the difference between ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I have no memory of’.”
“All the difference in the world,” said Kane. “What if I tell you that you got that scar when you were fifteen because you tried to kiss an outlandishly pretty girl called Mary who didn’t want to be kissed. She had very long multi-coloured, dagger-sharp fingernails and when you tried to kiss her on the lips she raised her hand up to push your face away and accidentally cut your cheek with her fingernails.”
“Where’d you get that from?” sneered Rother. “You’re making this up as you go along. I’ve had this scar since always.”
Kane was not about to concede. “You were a fifteen year old fan of a musical aggregation called The Cure…”
Rother was taken aback. “You only know that because you have access to my memories,” he protested, and then he thought about it. “But, actually yes, there was a girl called Mary in the year below me at school … and I thought she was gorgeous. Lovely long, straight dark hair, black eye make-up, red lips… but I never tried to kiss her.” Now he could see Mary’s face clearly in his memory. “I wish I had.”
Kane started up again. “It was halloween, and you met up with her in Oakland at the Haunted House in the Piedmont Avenue Pumpkin Patch.”
“I don’t remember that,” insisted Rother.
“Exactly,” said Kane. “You don’t remember it. It happened, but you don’t remember it.”
“What are you on about?” demanded Rother.
“You thought Mary was the most beautiful creature you had ever seen, and you were particularly taken by her red lipstick, Crimson Scorcher by the English fashion designer Mary Quant…”
“Hang on,” said Rother. “Crimson Scorcher was the lipstick that Robert Smith of The Cure wore…”
“Which is why Mary wore it that night,” revealed Kane. “She knew you were a Cure fan and she wore it because she thought you’d like it. And it worked a treat. You told me you thought she looked like a girl who wanted to be kissed…”
Despite the fact that he had no recollection of taking Mary to the haunted house that night, or of trying to kiss her, Rother couldn’t help but feel that it all rang true. He definitely did have a huge crush on Mary. Even so, he was not convinced. “Nah,” he said. “You’ve just dredged a bunch of stuff from my memories and you’ve embellished them…”
“No,” argued Kane. “It was you who told me those things.”
The feeling that now emanated from Kane was more like a glassy, flat pond without a single ripple. It was a sensation of confidence, absolute certainty. “Can you remember any pictures of yourself from around that time? School pictures, year book portraits would be best. Just close-up head shots.”
Rother had no trouble bringing up old photos of himself. “Yes,” he told Kane. “I can do that.”
“OK. Can you find one from when you were fourteen?”
It wasn’t too difficult. In the mid-70s before he became a Cure fan he had been a devotee of David Bowie, and his yearbook photo from 1975 reflected it, with his hair long on top, dyed a vaguely reddish blonde and swept back away from his face, which had only the faintest trace of make-up, just enough that he could get away with it in school without being beaten to a pulp by the jocks.
He smiled at the memory and then realised that, of course, Kane could see it too.
“So,” said Kane, “where’s the scar?”
Rother concentrated on the image in his mind as hard as he was able, and held the image as long as he could, but no matter what he did there was no sign of any scar under his eye. “What have you done?” he asked.
Kane calmly explained what had happened. In the course of an intense discussion earlier that evening, Rother had asked Kane if, as well as having access to his memories, he had any other ways of interacting with his recollections. Kane had replied that he had, in effect, total control over Rother’s entire neuro-electronic network. It transpired that, to Kane, Rother’s brain was not unlike an organic version of the digital memory stored in a computer.
As Kane had continued to describe it, Rother began to realise that his symbiote might be able to locate and select specific chunks of memory. The idea had excited him and terrified him at the same time, and kicked off a chain of thought that he hoped might prove useful at some unspecified time in the future.
“Could you,” he asked, “delete a memory from my brain? I mean, if you wanted to.”
Rother confirmed that it would be entirely possible but stressed that he had not attempted anything of the sort, because he was, as yet, uncertain of what side effects might ensue. It was possible, he speculated, that he might tamper with a memory which could inadvertently do damage to Rother’s brain in unimaginable ways, ways which might even also impinge on Kane’s ability to co-exist in Rother’s body.
Frightening though it was, Rother had been thrilled by the possibilities. Unexpectedly, he found himself reciting a brief poem from his childhood to his symbiote. “Listen to this,” he said. “Yesterday my sister Jane said she was an aeroplane, but I wanted further proof, so I pushed her off the roof.”
“Yes,” said Kane. “You’ve known that one for many, many of your years. And I can sense that you’re telling it to me now for a very particular reason.”
Rother agreed enthusiastically. “Yes, absolutely. You say you can delete memories, but I want further proof, don’t I?”
“But if I do what you have in mind,” pointed out Kane, “you’ll be the one being pushed off the roof.”
“I really don’t mind,” said Rother. “We have to try it. It could be the answer to all of our problems.”
Kane was initially reluctant but, after Rother detailed more of what he had in mind, the symbiote agreed to delete a memory, one single brief memory, from Rother’s brain. It took considerable further discussion to decide exactly what kind of memory might be safely deleted, and the pair then had to devise a protocol which would enable Kane to prove to Rother that a memory had indeed been removed.
Eventually, though, it was decided that Rother’s memory of trying to kiss the eminently kissable Mary could probably be excised without too much collateral damage being incurred. And Rother’s memories of photographs from before that time would confirm that his scar had not previously existed.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Rother, at the end of Kane’s detailed explanation of the process. “Mind-boggling.”
“I’m glad you think so,” was Kane’s response.
“Meaning what?” asked Rother. “That you don’t think so?”
“Meaning only that I’m glad you think so,” replied Kane. “Delighted in fact. The entire procedure has been a spectacular success, don’t you agree?”
Accompanying Kane’s comforting words, however, Rother could detect a sensation like two long strips of velcro being pulled apart very slowly and deliberately. He had no idea what it might mean, but he did not like it.
“It’s nothing,” said Kane. “Absolutely nothing.”
And now Rother was very worried indeed.
CHAPTER 26 : IT
Kupferberg was in no mood to answer his device. He had just been informed by Lucifer that Mercy Yoo and Leda had somehow eluded Castor and Pollux again. It had been no consolation whatsoever when Lucifer said, “She’s clearly a formidable young woman, this Mercy Woo.”
Glancing briefly at his communicator screen, Kupferberg noted that the incoming call was from someone at the NanoVit Knowledge Institute. “Lucifer,” he growled, “NanoVit. Remind me, quick.”
Luckily, Lucifer shopped regularly in NanoVit’s retail establishments. “Huge health food chain,” he responded. “Global, in fact. Lately rumoured to be expanding into vaccine technology.”
“Vaccines?” Kupferberg nodded, shook his head, then nodded again as he considered his options, before he accepted the call. “How the fuck did you get my private number?” he shouted into the device. Kupferberg always felt better when he had someone to shout at.
The voice at the other end of the phone betrayed nothing. “We have our ways,” she replied calmly.
“Who the fuck is this?” demanded Kupferberg.
“I’m calling on behalf of Mx Elfin, MD of Nanovit.”
“Did I ask who you were calling on behalf of?” thundered Kupferberg. “I asked who the fuck you are.”
Undeterred, the voice repeated, “I’m calling on behalf of Mx Elfin, the MD of Nanovit.”
Kupferberg’s index finger was hovering over the mute button on his device as he said, “I heard you the first time. That’s not what I asked.” Hitting the mute, he turned to Lucifer and asked, “Mx Elfin? What the hell kind of name is that?”
Lucifer was quick to respond. “Mx is an enby, non-binary, honorific. Elfin is the boss of Nanovit.”
“Do I need to be talking to it?” asked Kupferberg.
”’It’?”, queried Lucifer, quickly adding, “try not to call ‘it’ it. Elfin is the very powerful non-binary MD of a huge global conglomerate. Could be useful to us. And remember, we have quite a few believers in The Belonging who identify as non-binary.”
Although exasperated by what he was hearing, Kupferberg cottoned on fast to what Lucifer was telling him. He hit the mute button again. “OK,” he said. “I get it. Sorry … you called at an, ummm, inopportune moment.”
“Not a problem,” responded the voice. “I have a communication for you from Mx Elfin.”
“So tell me.”
“Mx Elfin would like you to know that ey feels The Belonging and Nanovit have many potentially shared interests.”
“So Mx Elfin is willing to extend an invitation to you, which ey believes could be advantageous to The Belonging in many ways.”
Despite himself, and despite his innate predisposition to despise non-gendered individuals, Kupferberg was beginning to become intrigued. “Hold on, just a second,” he said, pressing the mute key again. “Luci,” he whispered, “I think I smell money.”
“Agreed,” said Lucifer, adding, “No need to whisper. You’re on mute.”
“Don’t patronize me, you imbecile,” spat Kupferberg. “I’m going to pass this one to you. You can set up the meeting.” Once more, he hit the mute button. “Sorry,” he said again. “I just had to check something urgently. Let me put you across to my director, Lucifer, he can set up whatever Mx Elfin has in mind…”
“I think not,” said Elfin’s intermediary. “Mx Elfin requires a response from you personally, Mr. Kupferberg.”
Kupferberg fell uncomfortably silent for a couple of moments. He did not like what was happening. Being manoeuvred or manipulated in any way angered him but, like any practiced quack hustler, he knew better than to let a potential sucker slip off the hook.
“As it happens,” he improvised, “Director Lucifer has just this moment had to step away from his position. You’ll appreciate that I don’t have much time, but let’s take a couple of seconds to discuss how best we can proceed from here…”
CHAPTER 25 : Crimson Scorcher