INSIDERS – CHAPTERS 35 and 36; Gripping #vaccine/virus #sci-fi adventure #novel in serial form

CHAPTER 35 : Boxing Day

“But it’s just a document box,” objected Kupferberg.

He had opened the plain black box which Starkrost had handed him, and closely examined its insides.

“Yes indeed, it appears to be ‘just’ a document box,” smirked Starkrost. He leaned forward and pointed at one of its side walls. “But take a closer look … down here in this corner.”

Kupferberg looked again. “I’m still not seeing anything.”

“Excellent,” crowed Starkrost. “Now try again with this.” He produced a magnifying glass from his pocket and handed it to Kupferberg, indicating again the join between the side wall and the floor of the box.

“You mean those little holes in the side?”

“Exactly. You’d never notice it but this side wall is slightly thicker than the others. It’s a false wall, with a thin space inside.”

Guided by his employee’s directions, Kupferberg could see it was true. “Ingenious,” he said. “And I assume there’s a reason why?”

Starkrost was clearly delighted with himself. “We’ll fill this box with papers which I’m already having prepared, and take it to Elfin. We tell eir that the papers relate to our agreement for the use of our faithful as eir guinea pigs. They need to be authorised both by eirself and by Gregor Challis, as the two major participants in our arrangement.”

“Ah, yes,” interrupted Kupferberg. “But you’ve got a bug, or a micro-camera hidden inside the false wall so we can monitor everything they’re getting up to.”

The dismay in Starkrost’s expression was plain to see. “No,” he said. “Nothing quite so pedestrian.” Once again, he reached into a pocket but this time he produced a small device looking remarkably like a tv remote control.

“What’s that?” asked Kupferberg.

“A tv remote control,” said Starkrost, grinning from ear to ear. “But with some slight modifications of my own design. After Elfin has signed the papers ey will have to pass the box on to Challis. Once we’re sure it’s in his possession, I’ll use this remote to activate a tiny mechanism I have installed in the false wall, which will in turn open two flattened phials allowing their contents to mix, producing an odourless, colourless vapour which will pass easily through the holes…”

Kupferberg’s eyes lit up even more than they already had been. “Poison gas,” he guessed.

“Correct,” confirmed Starkrost. “A vapour of my own devising which, having been inhaled by Challis, will kill him within a few hours. By the time he dies, I will have de-activated the box, the vapour will have dispersed, and there will be no trace left behind. A perfect murder.”

“And you’re sure it will work?”

“Would you like to see the corpses of the two faithful on whom I tested it?”

Even with the crank emboldening all of his thought processes, Kupferberg was still not certain he could completely believe the plan that Starkrost had outlined. “A perfect murder, you say?”

“Perfect,” replied Starkrost. “With Challis gone, Elfin will be at a loss. He has been eir good right arm for years. Ey won’t know what to do without him. That’s when you move in.”

“Let’s go over this again,” said Kupferberg. “I want to be sure of every step along the way.”

“Of course, of course,” agreed Starkrost. “Let’s sit down and do exactly that before we leave this room. We want all the details tied down, every possible glitch considered and planned for. But first, tell me this, what do you think of my Crank Max? I’m really quite pleased with it.”

“I distinctly recall telling you that finding Rother had to be our first priority,” blustered Kintsugi.

“We’re absolutely on top of it,” replied Park. “We’re just about to confirm a sighting of him with a group of others in Yerba Buena Gardens.” He paused for a moment before tentatively asking, “Did you have any luck with Gregor Challis?”

Kintsugi clumsily avoided the question, saying, “Luck doesn’t come into it. Challis is not your concern. Keep on Rother. What’s the source of this sighting?”

“A brief facial recognition scan from one of the dragonflies. About 55% certainty, but we’re still confirming.”

“Get people down there immediately,” commanded Kintsugi.

“Already actioned. We’ll have people there inside five minutes. The scan should be on your hand-held by now if you want to see it.”

Kintsugi brought up the image and peered at it hopefully. “Looks a lot like Rother to me,” he said. “And that woman to his right … isn’t that Mercy Yoo? Can’t we get this any sharper? If that’s Mercy, then it has to be Rother.”

Park was annoyed with himself for not having spotted his former colleague Mercy Yoo. “Should be sharper scans coming through any second now,” he stated.

“You need to identify everybody in that group,” rapped Kintsugi. “We’ve got to know who they all are.”

An incoming call notification from Incheon began blinking on his screen. Despite a powerful urge to ignore it, he knew he could not. Clicking the link, he said, “Kintsugi. We have a situation here, Director Seong. Can I call you right back?”

His face fell when Seong, a high-level executive in the Foundation HQ, answered in the negative. “No. You need to listen. And listen carefully.” Kintsugi fell silent as Seong continued in urgent tones. “Things are changing here,” he said. “I’ve just come out of a top level board meeting where it has been concluded that the Foundation is long overdue for a re-organisation.”

Kintsugi had heard whispers about just such a thing for months but until this moment nothing had been confirmed. Indeed, the general consensus was that any kind of internal re-organisation was likely to be shelved in favour of a merger.

“You’ll be receiving written confirmation shortly,” said Seong, “but I wanted to let you know in advance because it’s going to affect you directly.”

“Me? Directly?” asked Kintsugi. “In what way?”

Seong explained that, for some time, it had been felt that the Foundation was outgrowing its original functions, and that the company structure was becoming too large. “We need to streamline things,” he went on. Kintsugi’s first thought was that his position was in danger, and Seong was about to terminate his contract. “With that in mind, the company is to be split, effective immediately, into two autonomous but still closely associated bodies.”

“But I …” began Kintsugi.

Seong ignored the interruption and said, “You are going to be appointed as head of Hu Foundation Cogent, with particular responsibility for AI Development, the Acceleration Project, Targeted Genetic Research and other inclusive areas…”

As Seong continued, Kintsugi found his attention wandering. He was asking himself what it meant. Was this, in effect, demotion? Or was it actually a promotion? Would it bring him more control, more responsibility, higher status within The Hu Foundation generally? It was too much for him to take on board, especially while he was embroiled in handling the pursuit of Rother and Mercy Yoo.

He was yanked back into the moment when Director Seong asked him emphatically, “So, Kintsugi, have you got that? Have I made myself clear?”

“Absolutely, Director,” was Kintsugi’s automatic response. “Thank you, Director.”

“Good,” said Seong. “That’s what I was hoping. You’ll get the written confirmation shortly. Congratulations. Let’s speak again after you’ve familiarised yourself with all the relevant details.”

Seong cut off the call before Kintsugi could say another word and, as the connection went dead, he was assailed by another voice.

“That dragonfly’s gone dead,” said Park. “We’ve lost it.”

While the others were still staring at the hovering nano-dragonfly, Coral jumped to her feet and headed full pelt towards it.

Spotting a plain young girl passing by with a tennis racquet, Coral snatched it from her grip and yelled a cursory, “Thank you!”

Before anyone else had properly registered what was happening, she took a well-aimed swipe at the robot bug which sent it careering into one of the large rocks embedded in the grass, where it smashed into several pieces and fell to the ground.

“Advantage Miss Shannon,” declared Smiddy. “I didn’t realise you could be so dynamic.”

“Trust me,” added Mercy, “Coral’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not these days, for sure.”

“What just happened?” asked Rother.
Coral came towards him holding several dragonfly fragments in her outstretched hand. “I just swatted some kind of nano-dragonfly spycam type of thing.”

A teenage girl appeared at her elbow. “Gimme that back,” she demanded, grabbing her racquet and running off.

The others crowded round Coral to examine the micro-electronic pieces in her palm. Smiddy picked out a component and squinted at it. “Doesn’t look like NanoVit tech to me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“I have,” countered Mercy. “I’ve seen components similar to these in Mr. Jong’s lab. This could be Hu Foundation stuff.”

“Doesn’t matter who made it,” pointed out Coral. “We need to get out of here right now. If we’ve been spotted they’ll have people on the way here already.”

“By the time we can get to any of the exits,” reasoned Mercy, “they’ll be watching for us leaving. They’re expecting us to run, so maybe we should go indoors.”

Rother was looking all around. “We can walk into the Metreon Center from here without even leaving the Gardens.” He pointed the way. “Let’s split up and walk separately. There’s a Japanese restaurant in there, I think it’s called Sanraku. We could rendezvous there.”

“But we’ve just finished our pizzas,” complained Smiddy. The other three gave him withering frowns. ‘Just kidding,” he said.

“We can probably get t-shirts and caps in there,” enthused Mercy. “You know, change up our looks a bit.”

The group split up and wandered as casually as they could, one by one, into the Metreon Center. Ten minutes later they were settled round a table in Sanraku, drinking Sapporo beers and brainstorming.

“So,” began Mercy, “any ideas? Anybody?”

There was only the briefest of silences before Coral raised one hand tentatively in the air like a schoolchild in class. “Actually,” she said. “I’ve been thinking…”
CHAPTER 36 : Missing You Already

Since their meeting in The Jade Garden Tea Room Kupferberg had not been in direct contact with Elfin Nano but, when he suggested they should meet again to complete the deal whereby ey would be given access to some of The Knowing’s faithful to use as guinea pigs, ey proved to be encouragingly enthusiastic.

“We’re on Washington Street,” ey told him, as if imparting a nugget of arcane information.

“I know exactly where you are,” replied Kupferberg. “Your building’s hard to miss with that huge Nanovit logo on the front.”

“I’ll tell security to expect you,” ey continued. “How about 3.30?”

“Today? You’re free so soon?”

Elfin snorted. “I’m free when I want to be free,” ey declared.

“We’ve prepared a contract, fairly standard…”

“Sure. Bring it along. I’ll take a look.”

Kupferberg could sense from eir dismissive tone that ey was not entirely happy with the idea of a written contract, but it was such an essential element in Starkrost’s plan that he was determined to push for it if need be.

“We’ll need it signed and authorised by yourself and Gregor Challis.”

“I’ve already said I’ll take a look at it,” ey confirmed. “So, 3.30?”

As ey ended the conversation with Kupferberg, a Rob1n fluttered down and landed on the arm of eir chair. Ey reached a hand out towards the tiny device and it obligingly hopped on.

Stroking a finger over the surface of the middle nut on the right hand side of eir neck, ey said, “Challis. Are you there?”

Eir Chief Science Enabler responded by appearing on the screen of eir hand-held device, with Ginger crouching on his shoulder. “You still haven’t told me about Smiddy,” ey reminded him.

“Ah, yes, Matthew Smiddy,” he stalled. “He’s proving more elusive than either of us anticipated.”

“Elusive? You mean you have no idea where he is? You mean he’s not dead?”

“I have engaged Roberto Segarini to dispose of Smiddy. As I imagine you may know, Segarini is a highly efficient, effective assassin but, thus far, even he has been unable to pin Smiddy down.”

Elfin was becoming so angry that she brushed the Rob1n off her hand. “You imagine wrong. I’ve never heard of him. I instructed you to take care of it personally.”

“And that’s exactly what I’m doing,” protested Challis. “Segarini is a much more proficient killer than I am. I’m a scientist. Remember? I made The Swarm for you. That’s what I’m best at. I made your Rob1ns…”

While Elfin stared at his face on the screen, ey stretched out eir arm again and allowed the Rob1n to land once more on the back of eir hand. “I suppose,” ey conceded, “there’s some truth in that.” Ey stroked the tiny creature from the top its head down its back to its tail feathers. “I’m prepared on this occasion to be generous,” ey told Challis. “You can have until tomorrow morning to provide me with incontrovertible evidence that Smiddy is dead.”

“Or else what?” asked Challis. His insolent tone of voice angered Elfin still more.

“You’ll see,” she said but the last thing she saw as the connection was cut was a self-satisfied smile spreading across his face. Before the image had faded to the Nanovit logo, she was beginning to think that it might be time to have Challis replaced.

As they left Yerba Buena Gardens, the quartet split up again for the short walk back to Mercy’s E-Class.

“What are you thinking?” Kane asked Rother.

“You know perfectly well what I’m thinking.”

“True. But you know it helps if you can articulate your thoughts. I still don’t know what it is, but something definitely happens when you turn your thoughts into words.”

Rother allowed himself a chuckle. “I like it when you acknowledge that language might actually have a useful function.”

“Good. So what are you thinking? Say it out loud if that helps.”

Rother nodded. “You know, I believe it does.” He took a deep breath to win himself a couple of seconds in which to marshal his thoughts. “I’m thinking that Coral is considerably smarter than I first gave her credit for.”

“Agreed,” said Kane. “You definitely underestimated her at first sight.”

“I did that,” conceded Rother. “She’s pretty. She’s cute.”

“And that’s evidently enough to make any man underestimate any woman,” suggested Kane.

“You catch on fast,” said Rother.

“Thank you,” responded Kane, “but I really can’t help it. It’s just how I am.”

“You’re certainly the smartest toddler I’ve ever had living in my head.”

“Strictly speaking,” pointed out his symbiote, “I don’t live in your head. I exist, or should I say we, exist throughout your body.”

Rother was not prepared to enter into that particular debate. “OK. Let’s leave that one for another day. Right now, I’m trying to find flaws in Coral’s plan, but so far I’m having no luck. If it works, this could all be over PDQ.”

Kane jumped in. “There are numerous logical reasons why her plan might not work…”

“I’m sure there are,” agreed Rother, “but in a situation like this we need to weigh your logical reasons against the fact that not one of the rest of us has come up with anything else that resembles a coherent plan. And we all have a gut feeling that it could work.”

“Could work,” echoed Kane before adding, “If you like, I could calculate the odds against Coral’s plan working…”

“No thanks, Spock,” laughed Rother. “But if you can come up with a better plan, then I’ll be all ears.”

Kane did not immediately respond but, as they entered the parking lot, he said, “I think I’m going to miss you.” The words arrived at Rother along with a sensation that he had never before detected in Kane. It felt like a lost child pining for its mother.


“And … right there,” said Mr. Park, pointing at the screen and pausing the image. “That’s where she swatted our dragonfly right out of the air.”

“Do we know who she is?” asked Kintsugi.

“No idea,” admitted Park. “The facial recognition picked out Rother and Mercy Yoo, but who the others in the group are, we don’t yet know.”

Kintsugi scowled. “I want them all identified but, mostly, I want Rother and Yoo. I want them here. They’re the ones fucking up the Acceleration Project and we can’t leave them running around on the loose.”

Leaving Park to oversee the pursuit, Kintsugi ran his eyes again over the written confirmation of his appointment as head of the newly-established Hu Foundation Cogent. It was beginning to seem to him that this was a position which could work to his advantage. With control over the development of AI, Genetic Research and the Acceleration Project he would be well-placed to advance his own ambitions of establishing a new multi-national – with or without the involvement of Gregor Challis.

“Who needs Challis?” he asked himself. “There must be others with similar skillsets.” He resolved to research the availability of geneticists with an interest in the treatment of pandemics. In recent years it had become one of the fastest-evolving fields of research, and the more he thought about it, the more optimistic he became about the likelihood of finding several potential candidates.

He was on the point of contacting Director Seong, when his communicator beeped again. To his astonishment, when he connected, the face which appeared on his screen was Mercy Yoo.

“What’s new?” she asked.

“Miss Yoo,” he responded, unable to think of anything else.

“See you later,” she replied and immediately cut the connection.

He spent a couple of seconds convincing himself that she had really disconnected after just a few seconds, and then yelled out, “Mr. Park! I want that call traced.”

“What call?” queried Park, from the far side of the room.

“I just got a call from Mercy Yoo,” shouted Kintsugi. “Get it traced now. Immediately.”

“There’s nothing on the board,” Park shouted back. “Nothing that could be her. All you’ve had in the last couple of minutes was a very brief call from an unidentified user in Taiwan, but she’s here in San Francisco. Shit! Give me a second.”

To Kintsugi, it felt like the longest second of recorded time but, eventually, Park came back. “That call from Taiwan … it was re-routed through a stack of servers all over the world. There’s no way to track it reliably. It could have originated anywhere.”

“It was her,” insisted Kintsugi. “Trace it. I don’t care how you do it.”

“There’s no way,” answered Park. “It’s just not technically possible. If it’s Mercy Yoo, she’s just playing with us.”

“It was Mercy Yoo all right.”

“But aren’t you the last person she’d want to be communicating with right now?” asked Park.

Kintsugi’s communicator beeped again but, before responding he shouted to Park. “Can we get a trace on this one?”

Park shook his head emphatically.

Accepting the call, Kintsugi was angered to see the face of the pretty girl who had smashed their dragonfly. “What’s new?” she asked.

“What the fuck?” fumed Kintsugi.

Coral smiled. “See you later,” she said and cut the connection.

“I couldn’t get a trace on it,” stated Park, “but I did manage to record what you received on your screen. Playing it back for you now.”

Kintsugi was not impressed. “I know what I saw. What’s the point of this?”

“Take a good look at it,” suggested Park. “Is there anything in the image that might indicate where she is?”

“I don’t know,” Kintsugi protested. “She’s just standing there, close up head shot with some building in the background. I don’t see how we can identify a couple of square feet of wall.”

“You’ve obviously never used Arkitekbyte,” said Park. “Let me just scan the image into their FastID section. Give me a couple of seconds.”

Kintsugi was dubious but moments later Park was spouting details being fed to him from the website’s vast database. “You might be in luck,” he began. “It looks Victorian. Wooden. Patterned surface … I think we’re seeing the corner of a tile there … that shade of bright blue, it’s typical of Butch Kradum … yes.” Park stopped and then triumphantly announced, “Arkitekbyte reckons its one of the Painted Ladies on Steiner Street. So she’s standing on Steiner Street.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Kintsugi. “What the hell did you just do?”

Park laughed. “My father was an architect,” he explained. “And I’ve inherited his interest in buildings. It’s easy when you know what you’re looking for. All you have to do is…”

“I take it back,” interrupted Kintsugi. “I don’t actually care how you did it. Just get some of our people down there. And do we have any dragonflies buzzing around anywhere near there?”

“We’ve got one over on Golden Gate Park, about a mile and a half away,” replied Park. ‘It can be monitoring the Painted Ladies along Steiner Street in a couple of minutes.”

“Get it moving,” ordered Kintsugi. “And get me a car. I want to be there when we nail them.”

On the short drive from Yerba Buena to Alamo Square Park, they had stopped briefly to pick up Ben And Jerry’s waffle cones, but those were already melting fast by the time the quartet settled down in the shade of the park’s Monterey Cypress trees.

“What do you guys think?” asked Coral.

“I still like the Cherry Garcia best,” answered Smiddy.

Coral used a finger to stem the flow of a slow-moving rivulet of Blondie/Brownie running down the side of her cone, and said, “No, dumbass, I mean do you think Kintsugi went for it?”

Mercy allowed herself a brief laugh. “If he’s half as arrogant as I think he is, his limo will be cruising along Steiner Street in the wake of a couple of Hummers jammed with Foundation goons before you can say …”

“Dragonfly,” cut in Doogle.

They all looked up into the clear blue. “Where is it?” asked Mercy.

Doogle pointed up, lowered his binoculars and passed them over. “They’re keeping it at a good distance. They’re not entirely stupid.”

“Where’s a tennis racquet when you need it?” asked Coral.

“We don’t want to swat this one, though, do we?” said Smiddy. “We need them to find us this time.”

Mercy looked from face to face. “Are we all comfortable with how we’re going to play this?” Everyone nodded. “Coral? It’s your play. Any last minute thoughts?”

Coral was still licking Blondie/Brownie off her fingers, but she took a few seconds to shake her head before saying, “Not really. I think we rehearsed it all pretty well in the car. Look surprised, look angry if you like, a bit of fairly convincing resistance but no heroics. They’ll all be carrying, so don’t antagonise them. We don’t want any itchy trigger fingers coming into play.”

Mercy thought back to her first meeting with Coral, a confused, frightened young woman, on the run from The Belonging. In the space of just a couple of days, it seemed, she had matured into a self-possessed instinctive survivor. ‘Maybe,” reasoned Mercy, “that’s what was always there inside her. It had just been stifled and hadn’t had a chance to re-emerge.”

“TBC?” Coral asked her.

“You what?” replied Mercy.

Coral used her thumb fingernail to cut a tiny section off the bottom of her cone, scooped some Blondie/Brownie onto it and offered it to Mercy who said, “My God. I haven’t seen anybody do that since I was a girl.”

“Tiny baby cone,” replied Coral. “My dad always used to do these for me when I was little.”

Mercy grinned. “Mine too.” She accepted the offering and popped it straight into her mouth. Now, for the first time, she began to feel that Coral could become a friend for life.

“Shouldn’t they be here by now?” worried Smiddy.

“Patience,” said Mercy.

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