INSIDERS – CHAPTERS 33 and 34; Gripping #vaccine/virus #sci-fi adventure #novel in serial form

CHAPTER 33 : A sensible law

Mercy was busy modifying her number plate again, when her communicator vibrated.

“Shit. I don’t need this,” she said, handing the device over to Coral. “See who it is. Unless it’s Doogle, I don’t want to know.”

Coral looked at the screen and said, “It’s a text. Looks like it’s from somebody called Alex …”

“I don’t know any Alex,” answered Mercy. “Certainly nobody I’d want to talk to right now.”

Coral nodded an acknowledgement. “Doesn’t make any sense anyway,” she said, starting to read it out. “The law of gravity’s a friend of mine…”

Mercy dropped the tape and grabbed at the communicator. “That’s Doogle! Gimme it here.”

As soon as it was in her hand, she started punching buttons. “It’s a sensible law, I think it’s fine,” she texted. Then she disconnected and waited for what seemed the longest ten seconds of her life to date.

“It’s definitely Doogle,” she declared to Coral and Smiddy with obvious delight and relief flooding her face. “Only Doogle would text that to me…”

The device vibrated again but this time it was a call. “Doogle,” she yelled. “You’re safe. Are you safe? I mean, I’m just assuming…”

“I’m safe,” he responded. “And you? Are you OK?”

Tears were brimming over in Mercy’s eyes, simply at the sound of his voice. “Fine,” she lied. “I’m fine. Apart from being hunted by a psycho killer. And being on the run from … oh, hang on, we really shouldn’t talk on here. I’m sure my phone is being bugged by Kintsugi and maybe by others…”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Rother agreed, fighting back an almost overwhelming urge just to tell her exactly how much he loved and needed her. “But we need to meet up. God, how I’ve missed you. We work better together, but don’t say anything. Let me think. Can you remember where we first shared a hot dog?”

The question filled Mercy up with nostalgia and started to conjure up dozens more memories of their earliest days together. “Of course! It was slathered in way too much mustard at …”

“Don’t say it,” interrupted Rother. “Do not say it. I’m directly across the street from the stand where you bought it for us. Can you get here? How long would it take you?”

Mercy fell briefly silent. Realising why Doogle had shut her down, she closed her eyes and tried to orient herself. They had shared their first hot dog on their way into Oracle Arena to watch the Giants. “I can be there in about twenty minutes,” she said and disconnected without another word.

Coral and Smiddy were both staring at her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “What was that?” asked Smiddy.

“I told you, didn’t I? It was Doogle. He’s OK. He’s alive.”

The next five minutes were a blur in which Mercy hastily completed the modification of her registration plate, jumped back into the E-Class and pulled away while explaining to Coral and Smiddy that Rother had texted her a line from one of their favourite psychedelic cult songs, My Mind Capsized by The Holy Modal Rounders. “They’re so obscure,” she babbled. “1968. Elektra Records. Weird psych-folk, you’ll never have heard of them, but Doogle wanted to be sure I knew it was him trying to contact me. So I texted back with the next line from the same song so he’d know it was me he’d got through to…”

“Slow down, Mercy,” said Coral. “This isn’t easy to follow. It’s all kinda double-o-seven…”

“More like Austin Powers,” suggested Smiddy.

Mercy turned onto 4th Street and headed South East towards Oracle Park. “It’s simple,” explained Mercy, trying hard to speak more slowly. “If my phone’s being monitored, which I’m pretty damn sure it is, we need to communicate in ways no-one else can understand.”

“So that’s why you were blathering about mustard?” asked Smiddy.

“You’ve got it. And that’s why we’re on our way to Oracle Park.”

“Clear as a Trump Tweet,” smirked Smiddy.

“Just trust me,” replied Mercy. “That’s where Doogle is.”

“And, assuming he is, what do we do after we find him?” asked Smiddy.

Mercy frowned and her brow wrinkled as she racked her brain for anything resembling a rational answer. “Maybe,” she finally said, “we could take a walk in a garden.”

Cyndi Licious slowed her pace and stopped a judicious ten yards behind where Segarini was standing on the sidewalk outside the St. Regis.

“Roberto, darling,” she pleaded. “Where are you going? They brought me the check…” She was well aware from previous encounters that he could be temperamental, sometimes almost to the point of frenzy, so she maintained her distance.

When he turned to face her, she knew she had made the right decision, and took a few more awkward steps back, almost overbalancing on her high heels. His normally handsome face had become a distorted mask, twisted and enraged.

She fell silent, unable to think of any words she might say to calm him down.

“It’s fine, boss. I’ll deal with it,” said a voice at her side. She turned and was relieved to see that Albert Bach had appeared, as if from nowhere, and was cautiously approaching Segarini.

At the sight of the little man, Segarini turned away again and glared off into the distance. “What kept you?” rasped the voice of Bhalak.

“The Cayenne will be out in a couple of seconds,” stalled Albert. “We can get on their tail.” He turned towards Cyndi and indicated, with a sideways jerk of his head, that she should get back inside the hotel.

“Where are they?” demanded Bhalak’s voice.

“They headed off along Mission,” offered Albert, hoping he might find a way to placate Segarini before Bhalak was fully in control. “I’ve got some of the good stuff in the limo.”

“Mission? Where are they going?”

Luck favoured Albert for the moment as their pale grey Porsche Cayenne limo drew up in front of Segarini, briefly providing a distraction. Good fortune continued to smile as the door opened and an exceptionally pretty young female driver stepped out. Women having been a lifelong passion of Segarini’s, she immediately caught his eye and, as she opened the rear door for him, he spoke to her in a voice that had become much more his own. “Thank you,” he said and, reaching one hand into the top pocket of his jacket, pulled out a small business card. “My card,” he said. “Call me any time. I”m Roberto.”

She looked at him in some confusion, but smiled politely as she took the card.

Ignoring the rear door, Segarini let himself in to the front passenger side and Albert stepped forward to take the driver’s seat. As he passed the young woman, he said, “It’s a business card.” and slipped her a $5 tip.

“Oh,” she replied, and made a show of looking with some interest at the card.

Albert settled down beside Segarini and closed the door. “You do realise that nobody uses those any more?” he asked his boss.

“Sure,” he replied, “But I’m not nobody.”

“You just confused the poor kid.”

As the Porsche pulled away, she remained on the sidewalk, puzzling over the card. On the front in a plain font was the web link, below which sat the e-mail address She shook her head in disbelief that anybody was still using e-mail and turned the card over, expecting to find some more contemporary contact info. Instead, she was confronted with nothing more than the three word company slogan – Keeping an eye out.

She waited until the Porsche was out of sight before dumping the card in the nearest bin.

“There there,” cooed Starkrost. “That’ll perk you up a bit. I made it fresh this morning. Finest natural ingredients.”

The dark yellow, syrupy crank fluid he was injecting into Kupferberg had indeed been home made and Starkrost was exceptionally pleased that his domestic skills had produced such a satisfactory result.

“I’m calling it Crank Max. Just like my mother never made,” he said, extracting the needle and wiping round the injection site with a sterile tissue. “And I’ve got the kettle on for a nice pot of tea. Your lips look a bit cracked. A cup of tea should help.”

Kupferberg’s eyelids slowly parted and he stared at the syringe. “It’s not blue,” he complained.

“This isn’t Breaking Bad,” pointed out Starkrost as he sprayed sterilising fluid around the bed where Kupferberg was lying. “This shit’s only blue on tv. If you want it blue, I can add some dye but it probably wouldn’t be good for you.”

Kupferberg moaned feebly. “I like it blue,” he said.

“It’s not blue,” persisted Starkrost. “It’s not meant to be blue. Just be glad you’re still alive.”

“Alive, yeah, sure,” mumbled Kupferberg, who was only slowly returning to a proper consciousness. “If I was dead, they wouldn’t eat me.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“The wolves,” replied Kupferberg. “And the coyotes and the bobcats. They eat dead things but they won’t touch meth-saturated corpses.”

“Is that a fact?” asked Starkrost. Pleased though he was that Kupferberg seemed to be recovering, he found it tedious to have to feign interest in his addled non sequiturs.

“I like traditional stuff,” muttered Kupferberg, “You know meth was first synthesised in 1893? It’s got a history. I like that.”

“Really?” asked Starkrost as he poured some tea into the mug he always saved for Kupferberg. “Two sugars isn’t it?” After stirring the sugar, he dextrously removed his sterile latex gloves and immediately replaced them with another pair from the hands-free dispenser.

Kupferberg managed to prop himself up on one elbow to sip the tea and it almost seemed to Starkrost that the hot drink was reviving him more effectively than the crank. There was a glimmer of light in his eyes now which suggested that he was becoming increasingly aware of his surroundings. For a moment or two Starkrost wondered if perhaps it might have been simpler, even better, to have just let Kupferberg die on the floor where he had fallen. He dismissed the thought quickly and reminded himself that if he could convince Kupferberg to somehow dispose of Gregor Challis, the ultimate outcome could be much more advantageous.

“How’re you feeling now?” he asked.

“Buzzed,” answered Kupferberg. “But very tired. But, you know, better than I was.”

“Have some more tea,” suggested Starkrost. “We’ve got a lot of things to talk about.”

Doogle could not bring himself to loosen his grip on Mercy’s hand.

“My fingertips are going white,” she pointed out.

He relaxed his grip but, as he did so, he put one arm round her. “God, I have missed you. I was terrified something might have happened to you.”

“You were terrified about me?” she answered. “You were the one with the parasites growing out of your face. You were the one who had vanished when I got home…”

In the ten minutes which had passed since Mercy’s E-Class had pulled up alongside Rother on Brannan Street, they had barely had a moment to talk. He had bundled himself in beside Mercy and snatched a kiss on her cheek as she accelerated away while trying to make some sort of introductions between him, Coral and Smiddy.

Without consulting Rother, she pointed the car up towards Yerba Buena Gardens. Glancing across at him, she said, “I can’t believe it. Your face looks pretty good. What happened?”

“Long story,” said Rother. “Where are we going?”

“You’re on the run,” replied Mercy, “and we think we’re being followed by a sociopathic assassin who likes cutting people’s eyes out…”

“Cutting people’s eyes out?” echoed Rother. “And we thought we had problems.”

Mercy stared at him hard. “We? Who’s we?”

“That’s another long story,” he told her. “But you’re right. We need somewhere to talk. Where are you thinking?”

“Somewhere we can stop and talk and plan what to do next,” she said. “I’m thinking Yerba Buena Gardens is exactly the sort of place nobody would expect a bunch of fugitives to go.” Already, she was slowing down to turn right into the sizeable car park at the Moscone Center, in easy walking distance from the gardens.

“Yerba Buena?” asked Rother. “Sure. Never once have I seen a fugitive in there. I vote the Butterfly Garden.”

Mercy firmly voted him down and opted for the Reflection Garden. “It’s shady,” she pointed out. “We can sit on the rocks and be inconspicuous. I can’t imagine it has much in the way of surveillance cameras or hidden mics.”

Now it was Rother’s turn to stare hard at Mercy. “Hidden mics? You’ve got a lot more paranoid than you were…”

“Back when I wasn’t being chased by a sociopath, you mean?”

Smiddy interrupted. “We can carry this on when we get into the gardens, kiddies. Meanwhile, I suggest we all cross 3rd Street separately, just in case Segarini is cruising around looking for us, and we can meet up again at the Reflection Garden.”

“Who’s getting the pizza and the coffees?” asked Coral.

“Escaped?” Kintsugi shouted the word directly into the face of Mr. Park. “How the fuck can he have escaped?”

Resisting the urge to wipe Kintsugi’s spittle off his cheeks, Mr. Park responded, “As yet, they don’t know. He just wasn’t there this morning when they took his breakfast in.”

“There must be video…”

“I’m having it checked as we speak.”

Kintsugi was having to think fast, which had never been his strongest suit. If Rother was on the loose, what implications might that have for his still not completed deal with Challis?

“Finding Rother has to be our first priority,” he commanded Park. “What about those nano-dragonflies? Have you sorted them out yet?”

“I’m on it, Sir,” confirmed Park. “You’re right. We do have about twenty ready to go operational. The R and D team is getting them fully up to speed, they tell me, by the end of the day.”

“Good. Get them out there as soon as. But our number one objective,” continued Kintsugi, “has to be to get Gregor Challis on board, working on Acceleration …”

“Sorry, Sir, but which of those should I start with – the first priority or the number one objective?” queried Park.

“Find Rother. I’ll do Challis.”

Mr. Park reversed out of the room, glad to be out of the firing line, as Kintsugi was placing his call to Challis.

When the communicator beeped in Challis’ lab, he was placing a new and improved pair of Rob1ns into a decorative box he’d had prepared especially for the purpose. He lifted it up to eye level in order to better admire the pattern he’d specified for its exterior – golden deathstalker scorpions against a black background.

“Yes? Kintsugi. I was so just not thinking about you,” he sneered.

“Look, we need you over here as soon as,” said Kintsugi.

“What’s the problem?”

‘No problem,” lied Kintsugi, but his uncertain tone of voice didn’t match his words.

“Really? Look, I’ve been thinking over your proposal and, you know what, I don’t think I’m your man.” As he spoke, he was tying a dark brown ribbon around his scorpion box. “I’ve just got too much else on my plate.”

The words took a second or two to register properly with Kintsugi. “But you said…”

“Yes, I know what I said. But now I’m saying something else.”

“But you can’t…”

“But I can.” Challis disconnected, leaving Kintsugi lost for words.

Satisfied that the box was perfect for its purpose, he set off to find Elfin.

“There’s a slice missing from this one,” complained Smiddy.

Coral chuckled and licked her lips. “Pepperoni, anchovies and extra cheese. You really thought I could carry that all the way from Joyride without treating myself?”

Smiddy laughed. She was, he thought, irresistible when she smiled like that.

“You wanted the margherita?” she asked, passing the second box towards Mercy. “Where’s Doogle?”

Mercy pointed off in the direction of the redwoods. “He needs a minute to himself,” she explained. “I think he’s still adjusting to all of this.”

“A minute to himself?” queried Coral. “Looks like he’s talking to somebody.”

In the shade of the huge trees, Doogle Rother was mired deep in thought-talk with his inner symbiote. “Look, it’s not easy,” he was saying. “They still don’t know about you and it’s going to take a lot of explaining.”

“I get that,” conceded Kane. “But the longer you leave it, the harder it will be, don’t you think?”

“I don’t honestly know what I think,” confessed Rother. “The last couple of days I’ve got so used to you being around, but it’s going to be a huge thing for them to get to grips with.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Kane. “Given what Mercy’s just been telling us, she knows there’s something huge going on, she knows it’s to do with intelligent viruses, she saw you when I was poking out all over your face…”

“OK. I take the point. She’s smart,” conceded Rother. “She’ll have figured out something’s going on with me. I just don’t know …”

“You just don’t know if she’ll still love you when you’ve got company.” To Rother’s surprise, Kane had summed up his concerns almost exactly.

“You’re getting to be a sensitive old symbiote in your in your dotage,” he observed. “I mean, I know you know everything I’m thinking, but somehow I hadn’t expected you to know me so well.”

“Dotage?” objected Kane. “I’m just barely beyond taking my first baby steps. I’m hoping for maybe another thousand years.”

“Oh God,” said Rother. “I’m not sure I can face still having you around when you’re a teenager.” Once again, he experienced the sensation he had felt emanating from Kane before – the sensation almost like laughter. “Oh, I take it you know about teenagers.”

“Certainly as much as you do,” confirmed Kane, “plus quite a lot you’ve forgotten you knew.”

Drawing in a deep breath of warm summer air, Rother composed himself, stood up straight, and turned to look back at his companions. “OK. I guess I’m ready to get myself a slice of pizza and give that lot a slice of my life.”

“Our life,” corrected Kane.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a nice hot shower?” suggested Starkrost. “You haven’t had a chance to clean up since you fell on the floor.”

“Shut up, Luci,” retorted Kupferberg, now overflowing with crank-induced vitality and confidence. “Did you say something about a plan?”

Starkrost felt he could almost see the bacteria teeming over the exposed areas of Kupferberg’s skin, but he didn’t dare push him too far. If The One didn’t understand the need for cleanliness at all times, that was at least a failing for which Starkrost could compensate to some extent by doubling down on his own regime.

“The plan is simplicity itself,” he said.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” snapped Kupferberg. “Your idea of ‘simplicity itself’ is a zillion miles removed from mine, but go on anyway.”

“So Elfin wants to use our faithful as guinea pig test subjects for her Viral Expedient…” he began, and went on to detail how, despite Kupferberg’s understandable reluctance, it might be best in the long run to sacrifice at least some of the faithful simply to win eir trust and get closer to Elfin. This strategy would, Starkrost reasoned, inevitably bring them within striking distance of their real objective, Gregor Challis.

“Because he’s the one who’s really in charge,” said Kupferberg.

“Precisely. If we can eliminate him from the picture, Elfin Nano will become much more vulnerable. A man of your persuasive powers should be able to influence eir. Ey’s susceptible, the suggestible type. Ey’s an orphan, ey needs a daddy. With Challis out of the way, that could be you.”

In his chemically-enhanced state, Kupferberg was impressed. He liked the sound of it. Establishing himself at the heart of Nanovit would ultimately prove more profitable, not to mention more legitimate, than heading up a pseudo-religious cult.

Starkrost could tell he was winning Kupferberg over, but he also knew that his plan depended on keeping Kupferberg off-kilter while still functional at every stage. “Thank God for crank,” he thought to himself.

“You said ‘eliminate’,” declared Kupferberg. “You mean Challis. How do you plan to eliminate him?”

“I was hoping you’d ask that,” responded Starkrost. “I was thinking of having Elfin dispose of him on our behalf.”

Kupferberg burst out with a hearty laugh, but it died away as quickly as it had arrived when he registered the look in Starkrost’s eyes. “You’re serious,” he said. “You’re actually serious.”

Starkrost nodded. “Deadly serious.”

“How can you have lost them?” demanded Segarini.

Anxious not to tip his boss back towards being under the control of Bhalak, Albie knew he had to choose his words carefully. “It can only be Smiddy. He must be calling the shots for them. The other two looked like fairly ordinary young dolls to me.”

“That’s what I thought,” acknowledged Segarini. “That car, that E-Class Merc, can we track it on streetcams?”

“You’d think so, but the number plate isn’t showing up anywhere.”

“They must have switched it somehow,” concluded Segarini. “That does sound like Smiddy. He’s trained. He was in the St. Regis. Check with the front desk, see if he was booked in there last night and if he was with anybody else. We need names for those two women.”

“Cyndi’s probably still there,” pointed out Albie. “I could get her to speak to the front desk.”

“No,” countered Segarini. “I want you to take care of it. This needs to be done right.”

While Albie was placing the call, they continued cruising the streets towards South Beach just in case but saw nothing of interest. Growing impatient, Segarini punched in the number for Challis.

“That’s better,” said Challis. “Last time we spoke I could barely make out a word you were saying.”

“Yes. I probably wasn’t quite myself. Listen, your man Smiddy managed to slip out of The St. Regis but we’re right behind him now. What do you know about those two women he’s with?”

“Two women? Nothing. What two women?”

“I saw him with two women. One of them looked Asian. The other was blonde, like some kind of neo-hippy chick.”

“Whores?” guessed Challis.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, you’d know,” observed Challis. “You might as well kill them all.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Segarini, “but twenty thou was for Smiddy. That makes it sixty for three.”

“Come on, Roberto,” protested Challis. “You can do better than that. A discount for volume, surely.”

“You’re killing me, Gregor. OK. I can do you fifty for all three, but only because it’s you. Don’t spread it around.”

“Deal,” said Challis, “but I want this handled before the day is out. And I want pictures of the women. With their eyes intact. I want to know who they are. And remember, you dispose of the remains.”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” confirmed Segarini as he cut off the call.

“Fifty?” asked Albie. “For three? You’re going soft.”

Segarini laughed. “You’re a funny guy, Albie. Did you get anything from the front desk?”

Albie beamed. “I got everything. They spent the night in Room 1723. Paid cash. Smiddy was calling himself Cutler. The girls gave fake names but the Asian, she’s the one who paid, showed the clerk some photo-ID, which he scanned, so I’ve run it and come up with Mercy Yoo, fairly high-level geneticist at the Hu Foundation.”

“Pretty good,” said Segarini.

“Better than pretty good,” replied Albie. “You remember that news broadcast the other day where you saw Elfin Nano? Of course you do. But you might not remember that they reported her company, Nanovit, was in direct competition with the Hu Foundation to develop a new all-singing, all-dancing intelligent vaccine.”

Segarini said nothing for so long that Albie couldn’t bear the silence. “Capo,” he asked, “what are you thinking?”

“This is all becoming very interesting, isn’t it?” replied Segarini, distractedly scratching his chin with the handle of his evisceration spoon. “Mercy Yoo of the Hu Foundation is on the run with Mr. Smiddy formerly of Nanovit. It’s too much of a coincidence, don’t you think? There’s a connection here but we’re not being told about it.”

“And what about the blonde?” wondered Albie. “Who’s she?”

“And why does Challis want them all dead?” mused Segarini. Much as he had been relishing the fun of disposing of them all, Segarini was now wondering if there was a bigger game afoot.

Albie slowed down the Porsche and brought it to a stop. “I think we can safely say we’ve lost them. So what next?”

Segarini slipped the spoon into the top pocket of his jacket and patted it. “Maybe it’s time we pay a visit to Gregor.”

Elfin held the scorpion box at arm’s length, turning it slowly around in order to admire it more fully.

“How very beautiful,” ey said. “The colours are gorgeous.”

“Yes. I had a feeling you’d like it,” replied Challis.

Ey brought the box a few inches closer to eir eyes to examine it in greater detail. “Lovely,” she declared, “but why do the scorpions all have one leg missing?”

“Do they?” asked Challis, feigning surprise. “I hadn’t noticed that.”

Ey angled the box towards him. “Yes. Look here.” Ey pointed at the biggest image. “It’s only got seven legs. Surely you must have noticed that when you were making it.”

He reached out and touched the box. “And yet, somehow, I didn’t. How extraordinary.”

“Sometimes, Challis, I just can’t make any sense of you,” ey chuckled. “To do what you do for me, your attention to detail must be exceptional, and yet you don’t notice something like that.” Ey set the box down on the small table in front of eir. “It’s so beautiful, I can hardly bear to open it but …”

Ey pulled the ribbon bow and ripped the scorpion paper away, balling it up and tossing it aside to where an attentive Nanovit staffer hurried in to clear it up. Pulling off the lid, ey had her first sight of Challis’ new, improved Rob1ns.

“Oh … lovely. You’ve excelled yourself. Mayonnaise?”

“Kraft,” confirmed Challis.

“Not Hellman’s?” queried Elfin. “That’s what I grew up with.”

Challis nodded. “Yes, I know, but I think you’ll find the Kraft more than acceptable. It’s bright, fresh and just a little sweeter.”

Elfin’s smile faded a little but, with some encouragement from Challis, ey took one of the Rob1ns from the box, placed it in the palm of eir hand, and depressed the button to make it excrete. Ey touched the small drop of mayonnaise and lifted eir finger to eir lips.

“Mmmmm.” Elfin’s eyes closed as the taste travelled through eir mouth. “Delicious. It’s not Hellman’s, but you’re right, it’s good.”

Deftly operating the controls in eir neck implants, ey set the two new Rob1ns off, and brought the originals back to the table.

“Now,” she said, “tell me you’ve dealt with Smiddy.”

“Believe me when I tell you,” began Rother, “that you’re not going to believe me when I tell you this.”

“Isn’t that a tautology?” asked Mercy.

“Might be,” conceded Rother, “but we’ve got a lot more to worry about right now than semantic niceties.”

“Like who’s going to have that final slice of margherita,” suggested Smiddy.

“More like how we’re going to deal with Kintsugi, Segarini and anybody else who wants us dead,” suggested Mercy.

“I wasn’t thinking of either of those,” stated Rother. “I was thinking about the fact that you’re probably all going to think I’ve lost my marbles when I tell you that I have an intelligent virus living inside me.”

“Actually…” began Mercy.

“Intelligent virus?” asked Coral. “Isn’t that what you were talking about back in the St. Regis?”

Mercy was nodding in agreement. “Sure,” she said. “It’s what we were working on at the Hu and, from the pieces I’ve been able to put together in the past couple of days, I’m not entirely surprised by what Doogle just said.” She paused and turned to look at Rother before adding, “Scared, terrified, confused, mind-boggled but not entirely surprised.”

“She’s impressive,” Kane said in Rother’s head. “Maybe I should have tried harder to remain with her.”

As clearly and concisely as he could, Rother sketched out the most significant details of his last couple of days, ending with, “Why you should believe any of this, I’ve no idea, except that it’s true. Or, at least, I believe it’s true. I may, of course, be totally unhinged, hallucinating, one raisin short of a fruitcake.”

Coral appeared to Rother to be the most dubious, but she said nothing. It was Smiddy who first spoke up. “Worryingly,” he began, “much of what you’re saying more or less confirms some of the goofiest rumours that were flying around Nanovit before I jumped ship. So unless Mercy has serious doubts about your sanity, for the moment, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Let me just ask one thing. Is Kane communicating with you right now?”

“Kane rarely shuts up,” confirmed Rother. “He’s currently telling me everything that I could have expressed better in my summary, especially the bits where I tried to describe him.”

“Isn’t it scary to have another voice in your head all the time?”

“Don’t we all have other voices in our heads?” countered Rother. “I’ve had internal dialogues going on all my life. Some folks call it conscience, or the still small voice. The real difference with Kane is that he’s rarely still and never small. He’s a major presence and his perspectives are radically different than mine.”

“Like having a devil on your shoulder?”

When Smiddy made that suggestion, Rother could sense Kane immediately reacting against it, with a sensation akin to a steam kettle about to boil over.

Rother laughed. “Kane says to tell you that he in no way resembles whatever it is you imagine a devil to be.”

Finally, Coral added her voice to the conversation. “What’s that dragonfly doing?” she asked, pointing over Mercy’s head.

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