INSIDERS – CHAPTERS 29 and 30; Gripping #vaccine/virus #sci-fi adventure #novel in serial form

CHAPTER 29 : Lies, Damned Lies

“Exactly how did you do that?” asked Kane.

“Do what?”

“You told the orderly you had cramp. You appeared to be in pain.”

Rother could feel another new sensation, akin to the sound of a swarm of bluebottle flies circling over a lump of decaying meat, emanating from his symbiotic companion. “Something’s confusing you,” he said. “And exciting you.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Kane. “You seem to be picturing a swarm of Calliphora vomitoria. Quite a fair representation of what I’m feeling.”

Rother would have preferred to be planning the next stage in their hopefully imminent departure from the Bayview Aurora Residence, but he knew that Kane’s curiosity had to be satisfied first. He had realised that despite the symbiote’s prodigious abilities, and despite its capacity to absorb huge amounts of information, Kane was, in many ways, still an infant, and functioned best when it was not distracted.

“So, yes, I told the orderly I had cramp,” confirmed Rother. “What’s the problem?”

“You didn’t have cramp. And you were not in pain.”

“True,” said Rother. “But we went over that when we planned our escape strategy. I told you that I would distract the orderly so that you…”

The buzz of Kane’s internal bluebottles was growing louder and more intense. “Yes, and I accepted that, but you didn’t explain how you would achieve that distraction. You didn’t have cramp, you were not in pain, but you told him you were. How did you do that? Can I learn that?”

Now it became clear to Rother. Kane was excited and confused about lying. “I told the orderly a couple of lies to manipulate him into doing what we wanted him to do. You must have encountered the concept of lying by now, surely?”

“Yes, of course I have encountered it. It’s there in your mind, all over the place,” agreed Kane. “But until now I hadn’t experienced you doing it in practice. It’s one of your many human concepts that doesn’t translate well into language.”

Rother knew that Kane had been experiencing difficulty with grasping the full meaning of certain words and concepts, but it was only now becoming evident to him that lying was among those concepts. Somewhere in the back of his head, an alarm bell started ringing, and he tried to stifle it before Kane latched onto it.

“Too late,” said Kane. “You’re worried about this, aren’t you?”

“Not at all,” lied Rother, fully aware of the futility of attempting to lie to his all but omniscient symbiote.

“Aha,” said Kane.

“Look,” blurted Rother, “lying is one of the first things humans ever learn to do. We do it as children, and then we never stop. We tell lies to people we hate, people we fear, people we love … we tell lies to ourselves. But it’s not a good thing.”

“Yes,” said Kane. “‘Good thing’. ‘Bad thing’. Those are also right up there among the human concepts that are difficult to grasp. I’m trying. Believe me, I’m trying, but there’s just so much of it.”

“So many of them,” corrected Rother, but he was feeling a surge of empathy towards his symbiote. He found himself thrown back into his own childhood when he had struggled with exactly the same concepts. He remembered lying to his parents about the hens’ eggs he had smashed against trees in the woods near their home. Lying to his teachers about homework he had ‘lost’. Lying to his best friend about the Astronaut Pen that could write underwater and upside down.

“OK. OK. Come back,” urged Kane, “before you completely disappear into that wormhole.”

Rother snapped out of it, but those memories were immediately replaced by the terrifying notion that Kane was on the verge of learning how to lie.

“Don’t worry,” said Kane soothingly. “I’m not planning to learn how to lie.”

“And there’s your first lie,” retorted Rother.

“Absolutely,” agreed Kane. The nauseating buzz of his bluebottles had somehow gradually transformed into an ecstasy of humming bird wings vibrating. “And you detected it. But I’ll get better at it, I promise.”

“Yeah,” said Rother. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about.”

“Listen ladies,” suggested Smiddy. “We could work together. You need me.”

“Yeah,” answered Mercy. “Like we need a hole in the head.”

Smiddy gave out a sardonic laugh. “Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it,” he said. “See this dressing on my forehead? Lift it up.”

Tentatively, Mercy did as he suggested but then immediately turned away. “Bloody hell,” she said.

Coral, on the other hand, was leaning forward to get a closer look. “That looks deep,” she observed. “Like it goes all the way in.”

“All the way through,” corrected Smiddy, still evidently finding the situation grimly amusing. “Check round the back.”

Overcoming her feelings of revulsion, Mercy tipped Smiddy’s head forward and lifted the bandages at the rear. “Good God,” she exclaimed. This time she made herself look closer. “You … you should be dead.”

“And that’s just one reason why we should all be working together,” responded Smiddy.

Conscious that she was stating the obvious, Mercy said, “You’ve got a hole right through your head.”

“Glad you noticed,” said Smiddy. “Allow me to explain and then, maybe, you’ll be good enough to untie me.”

Despite what she had just seen with her own eyes, Mercy found it hard to follow the story Smiddy now began unfolding for her.

As a Hu Foundation employee, she already knew much of the background and, since the attempted assassination in the parking garage, the disappearance of Doogle and the arrival of Coral Shannon in her life, she had begun to develop some fragmentary theories about what was going on.

Even so, what Smiddy was revealing about the machinations at Nanovit surprised her. In particular, his revelations about the ambitions of the evidently ruthless Elfin spurred her to keep asking questions that slowed the flow of his narrative.

“I’ve heard of this Elfin,” she said. “Isn’t she the one they say has metal bolts in her neck?”

“The very same,” confirmed Smiddy. “Except it’s not ‘she’. Elfin is an ‘ey’. Gender neutral.”

Coral guffawed heartily. “You mean she’s a nut job, don’t you?”

“No,” Smiddy corrected her. “I mean ey’s a nut job.”

“Fachrissake!” responded Coral. “Gender neutral? That’s just two words for confused as fuck.”

Now it was Mercy’s turn to laugh. “Dial it back, Coral,” she said. “Anybody who isn’t confused as fuck just doesn’t properly comprehend the parlous state of humanity.”

Coral shot her a look of undisguised disdain. “All I know is I’m a woman. I was born a woman and I’ll die a woman. I don’t need to run away from that.”

“Sure, and I’m a woman too,” agreed Mercy, “but Elfin presumably doesn’t think that way. Personally, I’d be more worried about why ey’d want to have metal bolts implanted under eir skin.”

“Bat-shit crazy,” said Coral.

“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” asserted Smiddy. “But ey’s a regular card-carrying Mother Teresa compared to eir lab rat Gregor Challis. He’s the one you really need to worry about.”

Mercy’s eyes widened. “I’ve heard his name too. Isn’t he Nanovit’s tame mad scientist?”

“Anything but tame,” corrected Smiddy. “Rabid might be a better adjective. Elfin can barely keep him in line. Left to his own devices, and he has plenty of those, he’d probably while away his quieter afternoons cutting the wings off…”

“I’d rather not know,” interrupted Mercy.

Smiddy lapsed briefly into an awkward silence before resuming his account by moving on to how Elfin had assigned him the task of tracking down Mr. Jong in the hope of finding out exactly what he had achieved while working on the Foundation’s Acceleration Project.

Again, Mercy felt obliged to interrupt. “You can stop looking for Mr. Jong. He’s dead. I can assure you of that,” she paused to consider how much more she should reveal. “The results of his espionage, however, are another matter entirely.”

Smiddy stared at her intently. “You know what he had achieved?”

Mercy returned the gaze. “You don’t?”

Smiddy, despite an attempt to summon up an impenetrable poker face, appeared crestfallen. Mercy held his stare and began nodding her head. “So Elfin still doesn’t know.” She smiled and, although she really didn’t know why, so did Coral.

“My wrists are hurting like hell,” said Smiddy, attempting to change the flow of the conversation.

“Get used to it,” said Coral.

“From what you’ve told me,” resumed Mercy, “I can’t imagine there’s any love lost between you and Elfin, or even between you and Nanovit in general.”

“That would be putting it mildly,” replied Smiddy. “I mean, come on, Elfin tried to have me exterminated. She ordered her lackeys to kill me.”

“And that’s why you have a hole through your head,” concluded Mercy. “But it doesn’t explain how you can still walk around on your hind legs.”

Warning her that she might not believe what she was about to hear, Smiddy sketched in the details of his time in Nanovit’s Surgical Relocation Division which had resulted in his brain being re-located to his buttocks. “And believe me,” he elaborated, “I wasn’t the only one undergoing organ re-assignment. You should see some of the other survivors.”

“On balance,” said Mercy, “No thanks.”

Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of the hole through Smiddy’s head, Mercy and Coral felt obliged to believe what Smiddy was telling them, however insane it sounded.

“Look,” he resumed, “Nanovit’s a long way from being the same organisation it was when I first joined. Back then it was still essentially a health food conglomerate. We marketed ‘natural’ products at tree huggers and latter-day hippies and re-born new age vegans who thought the fountain of eternal youth could be bought in tablet form in sustainable brown paper packages wrapped up with twine. They liked to see words like sustainable, real and organic on our packages. It was a very lucrative business.”

“I get the point,” said Mercy. “So what went wrong?”

“I wasn’t actually there when all that started,” pointed out Smiddy. “As far as I can figure, it can’t have been long after Elfin’s grandfather died, which was about ten years ago. Eir father and mother had both died, a car smash or some such, when ey was just a little girl, so for much of eir childhood ey was looked after by eir grandfather. Ey inherited the company when he died and tried to modernise the business model, expanded into new areas, brought in new executives…”

“Let me guess,” interrupted Mercy. “It was Elfin who brought in Challis?”

Smiddy nodded. “He was already in place when I started. He completely re-structured the organisation and, in effect, he dominated Elfin. It was Challis who designed and installed eir neck implants. Then, when the 2020 pandemic hit, he convinced Elfin that the future belonged to whoever could come up with the ultimate strategy to counter viruses and their mutations.”

With dawn beginning to pale the sky outside Room 1723, Mercy moved round to stand beside Coral. “Let’s you and me take a long, hard look at him, Coral,” she said. “Then we’re going to have to make a decision.”


CHAPTER 30 : Orderly Exit

As Rother and Kane had been expecting, the ward door opened and the orderly stepped into the room.

Rother was unwilling to open the conversation, because there was as yet no way to know if Kane had successfully transferred an iteration of itself into the orderly’s body.

“Packed and ready to go, are we?” asked the orderly.

Rother’s relief was evident from the smile spreading across his features, and he could feel a radiating sense of satisfaction from Kane.

“So it worked?” asked Rother.

“Better than we had hoped,” said the orderly. “I’ve been able to take over his essential functions with little difficulty. I think the fact that he isn’t exactly happy in his work made it easier. His name’s Alejandro, Alex to his friends, so, if you’d like to refer me by that name…”

“Well, hello again Alex,” said Rother. “First things first, can you get me out of these restraints?”

As Alex set about freeing Rother, he started to explain how he hoped an undetected exit might be achieved. “The sun’s just coming up, so we’re still on the overnight skeleton staff rota and I’m about to go off duty. If I give you my security pass, you can clock out as me. We call it Buddy-Punching. Shouldn’t trigger any alarms.”

“Fantastic,” said Rother. “You and Kane obviously worked it all out beautifully.”

“I am Kane,” pointed out Alex. “A new iteration but, to all intents and purposes, we are identical.”

“I’m sure I’m going to be worrying about that later, but for the moment, I’m just grateful.”

“After you leave this room, turn left, then third right which will bring you to the elevator. Go up to the first floor, take a right then about 100 yards along there on the left you’ll find a door which opens onto a flight of stairs which will take you down to the staff exit…”

“Hold on,” interrupted Rother. “I’ll never remember all of that.”

“I will,” Kane told him. “Tell Alex to carry on.”

“Oh, OK,” said Rother. “You can carry on, Alex. Kane is going to remember it all.”

“That’s what I was expecting,” said Alex. “When you get past the clocking in machine, the exit is straight ahead. There’s another flight of steps outside to take you back up to street level. You’ll find yourself on King Street, right by Oracle Park. After that, you’re on your own.”

“Oracle Park,” repeated Rother. “Home of the Giants. Right down by Mission Bay. I remember when it was Pacific Bell Park! Thank you, Alex, but I think I’d better go now…”

Alex shook his head. “No, you can’t go just yet. First of all …” He pulled his ID laminate over his head and passed it to Rother. “And here’s my wallet which has some cash in it in case you need to hail a a cab or an Uber or whatever. And lastly, here’s my phone which I’m sure will prove useful. My password is 12#Jandro#34.”

“God! You think of everything,” said Rother.

“Which is just as well,” replied Alex, “because you don’t.”

Rother smiled. “So is that it? Can I go now?”

“Not quite,” said Alex. “You need to knock me out and strap me down on the bed.”

“OK, but let’s make this fun,” suggested Coral as she leaned in closer to Smiddy’s face and brought the Swiss Army knife to within a hairsbreadth of his eye. The move took Mercy by surprise almost as much as it did Smiddy.

As he strained to turn his face away, Coral winked across at Mercy, clicked the corkscrew implement back into place, and flipped the knife across to her. Deftly catching it, Mercy moved round behind Smiddy and cut through the cord binding his wrists. A moment later, Coral swung her leg over Smiddy’s body, stood up and removed the chair on which she had been sitting.

“Upsy-daisy,” she said, offering him a hand.

“You won’t regret this,” he said as he shifted into a sitting position.

“I certainly hope not,” agreed Mercy. “Because if either of us feels the slightest twinge of regret, you’ll be the one to suffer.”

He turned and offered his hand to Mercy, but she did not return the gesture. “A handshake?” she asked. “I think not. Not yet. We’ve set you free, but I’m not convinced we’re ready to shake on a deal. You’re going to have to earn that.”

To emphasise her words, she picked up his black Beretta 92 FS from the table and tucked it into the back of her belt. He glared at her but she held his stare. “And you’re going to have to earn this too.”

As she spoke, Mercy was hoping that Smiddy didn’t realise she had never once held a handgun in all of her life.

“It’s getting light out there,” noted Coral. “Is anyone else starving? Do you think their restaurant is open for breakfast yet?”

“First thing I did when we got here was checked the menu,” said Mercy. “I’m ready for their eggs benedict with the black truffle hollandaise.”

After clearing away the last of the broken vase fragments, the trio headed for the elevator and rode it down to The Grill restaurant.

As they settled themselves down at a table by the door, Smiddy lowered his head and spoke urgently but under his breath. “Pick up your menus and hold them in front of your faces. Do not take your eyes off them.”

Mercy was the first to respond and Coral was just a second behind her. “What is it, Smiddy? What have you seen?”

“Keep your voices down, eyes on the menus, do nothing that might attract attention to us,” whispered Smiddy. “Coming down here for breakfast was possibly the dumbest move we could have made.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Mercy.

“Can you smell camomile and neroli?” asked Smiddy.

“What’s neroli?” asked Coral.

“Never mind,” said Smiddy. “It’s the smell of a popular hand sanitizer. I clocked it as soon as we came in here. There’s only one guy I know of who splashes it around himself like he’s got shares in the company, and he’s sitting at the corner table to our left with an over-dressed barbie weighed down with fake Swarovsky bling.”

Coral started to turn her head but Smiddy pushed his menu over towards her and whispered. “Do not look. Did you not hear me?”

“Just tell us,” said Mercy. “Cut the drama.”

“His name is Roberto Segarini, and I can only think of one reason why he’d be breakfasting in the St. Regis on this particular morning.”

“Which is?” asked Mercy.

“You. I should imagine he has tracked you here as easily as I did,” said Smiddy. “The big difference between him and me is that if he is looking for you, it’s because he wants to kill you.”
Kupferberg had woken time and again from disturbing dreams during an almost sleepless night. Now, with an annoyingly bright new day underway, he was levering himself up with liberal quantities of crank, which had become his pick-me-up of first resort since quitting heroin five years earlier.

He wanted to be as alert as possible for the meeting he had scheduled with Lucifer Starkrost to discuss strategy for his upcoming encounter with Elfin. As ever, Starkrost was late and Kupferberg was as furious as he was wide-eyed.

Despite his chemically-enhanced wakefulness, he could not dismiss thoughts of the one recurring dream which had particularly troubled him through the night. He had been walking down a long, narrow alleyway between two high walls when he became aware of the yowling of a cat. Looking up, he saw the cat atop one of the walls and reached an arm up towards it, but the cat moved away. He tried to climb the wall but it was too smooth and, as he looked for handholds, he realised that the wall was made of glass, and that hands were pressing against the glass from the other side. Shocked, he recoiled from the glass but the ground was no longer beneath him and he began a terrifying fall towards nothingness. High above him, he could see the cat leaping across from one wall to the other as he continued to fall.

As always, this had been the point at which he woke up, shivering with fear. What disturbed him most was that he was not afraid of the fall. He was afraid of the cat.

He was swallowing another comfortingly green capsule when Starkrost walked in. As quickly as he could, he screwed the lid of the bottle back on, but hadn’t quite managed to pocket it before Starkrost said, “You do know they’ll kill you quicker than the horse would have?”

“Which means I don’t have the luxury of time to hang around waiting for you to arrive,” retorted Kupferberg. “Sit down.”

Unfazed, Starkrost settled across from Kupferberg and opened up a page on his hand-held screen. “I’ve been looking at this Elfin,” he said. “A formidable young person. As far as I can make out ey was orphaned at a young age, brought up by eir grandfather, troublingly anxious teenager, anorexia, self-harming, the works … but still inherited the company when he died. They’ve been expanding into vaccines since the 2019 pandemic.”

“I pretty much know all of this,” objected Kupferberg. “What’s her weakness?”

“Eir weakness,” corrected Starkrost. “Weaknesses? The usual. Vanity, arrogance…”

“Yes, very good, Luci, but what can I exploit?”

“Ey thinks ey’s in control of Nanovit, but the one you really need to worry about is Gregor Challis. Calls himself eir Chief Science Enabler, but as near as makes no difference he really runs the show. Elfin is a perfect figurehead, intelligent, composed, beautiful, so he’s happy to let eir appear to be in charge, but there will come a point when he will want to replace eir.”

“Finally,” crowed Kupferberg, “some useful intel. I knew there must be a reason why I employ you. So what does she hope to gain by meeting with me? She said something about mutual interests…”

“Nanovit has a project called Viral Expedient. It’s supposedly secret but it has to be their anti-virus initiative. Details are hard to pin down, but I’d guess ey’s reaching out to potentially sympathetic collaborators with the aim of forming some kind of alliance.”

Kupferberg nodded. “But Challis is the one I really need to be worrying about.”

“Yes,” said Starkrost. “And no.”

“Typical,” responded Kupferberg. “‘Yes and no’? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Starkrost chuckled malevolently. “If the Viral Expedient actually works you might not need Challis. It might be better to have him eliminated.”

There was a look in Starkrost’s eyes which, fortunately, Kupferberg failed to notice.

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