INSIDERS – CHAPTERS 37 and 38; Gripping #vaccine/virus #sci-fi adventure #novel in serial form

CHAPTER 37 : Boxing Clever

With Starkrost’s near-skeletal frame executing its awkwardly angular lurch alongside, Kupferberg made a point of walking slowly along Washington Street as they approached the Nanovit HQ.

“You see that one?” he asked Starkrost, pointing towards a French-styled mansion as they passed. “Twenty million dollars. Taylor Swift had her eye on that one. I love this part of town.”

“You and Elfin both, I assume,” commented Starkrost.

As they entered the Nanovit reception area, Kupferberg told his Comms Controller, “Whatever you do, don’t offer the box to Elfin. Keep it visible, keep it in your lap, but make a little show of holding it to yourself.”

“I know,” responded Starkrost, clearly annoyed. “It was me that came up with that strategy.”

They were perhaps five yards from the desk when the receptionist looked up, smiled broadly, and said, “You must be Mr Kupferberg and Mr Starkrost? You can go straight through.”

They were ushered into the presence of Elfin Nano, who was seated on the far side of a long table with huge picture windows at her back offering a view down towards the Transamerica Pyramid and the bay beyond.

“Great to see you,” she said, with no hint of sincerity in her words. “Sit.”

The wide table between them deprived Starkrost of his plan to keep the box in his lap, so he placed it instead on the very edge of the table, and wrapped his arms protectively around it.

“So?” asked Elfin.

Taking care never to look towards the box, Kupferberg launched into a detailed summary of the terms under which The Belonging was prepared to allow Elfin access to a select group of its followers for use as test subjects in Nanovit’s Viral Expedient programme.

Starkrost, meanwhile, was occasionally drumming his fingers on the lid of the box, or turning it slightly one way then the other. Kupferberg was pleased to note that Elfin’s eyes flicked towards the box whenever Starkrost interacted with it.

“Your terms sound largely unobjectionable,” ey said after a few minutes of listening. “But, obviously, I need my legal people to look them over before I can agree to anything.”

“Of course,” smiled Kupferberg. “Assuming everything’s in order, we’d like to have this expedited as quickly as possible. And, of course, it will require signatures from eirself and Gregor Challis. Can you ensure the contract gets to him without delay?”

Elfin acceded with the slightest of nods and, as they rose from their seats, ey pointed out, “But you haven’t given me the contract yet … I’m assuming it’s in that box.”

Delighted that ey had taken the bait, Starkrost pushed it across the table. “People seem to keep giving me boxes lately,” observed Elfin. “Do I really need the box?”

Kupferberg and Starkrost both froze. “It keeps all the documents together,” stated Kupferberg.

“There’s been this amazing invention,” retorted Elfin. “They’re calling it the paperclip. We use them all the time around here.”

Starkrost managed a convincingly genuine laugh as he said, “Thanks for the tip. We’ll look into that. But why don’t you just hang onto the box for the time being and get it back to us with the signed copies of the contract? Or keep it for your box collection, compliments of The Belonging.”

Elfin smiled, clearly a little bemused, but accepted the box. “Fine,” she said. “No problem.” Kupferberg and Starkrost breathed again.

While they waited in Alamo Square Park for Kintsugi and his Foundation security squad to arrive on Steiner Street, Rother and Kane used the brief respite to consider the situation they had now found themselves in.

“You’re not sure, are you, about Coral’s plan?” asked Rother.

“If it works,” replied Kane, “it could wrap this whole business up in remarkably short order. But the devil, as I believe you say, is in the detail.”

“Any particular detail?”

Kane was clearly unwilling to divulge much more about his concerns but, after several days of their co-existence, Rother was finding that he could sense much of Kane’s thinking just as the symbiote could sense his.

“You’re worried about completely leaving me. Isn’t that the nub of it?”

“Worry?” asked Kane. “I haven’t really got the hang of that just yet.”

“OK … concerned,” suggested Rother. “Anxious. Perturbed. Bothered. How about you just don’t like the idea of leaving me completely.”

“Yes. Now we’re getting there,” agreed Kane. “I just don’t like that idea.”

“Well, actually … and I think you already know this … that part of the strategy wasn’t Coral’s. That was my contribution.”

To his surprise, as soon as he had spoken the words, Rother couldn’t help remembering an evening many years earlier when he had split up with his first serious girlfriend.

“Yes,” said Kane. “Yes, I think you’re beginning to understand.”

“But you’re not my girlfriend…”

“Girlfriend? Boyfriend? What’s the difference?” asked Kane. “You’re my first real friend. Our first real friend.”

Rother fell silent while he tried to get to grips with what Kane was sharing with him. Eventually, though, it was Kane who resumed. “I don’t feel we’re done. We still have unfinished business.”

Rother remained lost for words. “I’m going to miss you,” said Kane. “We’re going to miss you.”

Slowly, the pieces were beginning to coalesce for Rother. “It was me,” he said. “Coral suggested we could fight back by using your ability to enter other bodies and influence them, but it was my suggestion that you should transfer wholly out of my body into one or other of our enemies.”

“True,” said Kane.

“I didn’t think…”

Kane’s next thought seemed suffused with an emotion which presented itself to Rother like the feeling of a human body being torn apart. “Absolutely,” said Kane. “You didn’t think.”


“But nothing. You just didn’t think.” Kane’s emotional vulnerability was now pouring into Rother as an almost solid, fully three dimensional image of a lamb trying to understand why a wolf was ripping it to bloody shreds. He felt his entire body rock backwards until his head collided with the nearest Cypress, making him cry out in pain.

There were tears forming in his eyes as he managed to find some words. “But all my life I’ve been me. Just me. Then you arrived…”

“And all my life I’ve been us,” pointed out Kane. “Every moment of my brief existence has been plural. I’ve always been an us.”

“But surely,” reasoned Rother. “you will continue on as an us.”

“Not this us,” objected Kane.

Rother fell silent again, and tried to shield his thoughts from Kane, although he knew it was a pointless exercise.

Once more, it was Kane who picked up the train of thought. “I understand,” he said. “For all of your life you have been the singular occupant of your mind. Three decades and more. But although I have been a plural entity for just a matter of weeks, that’s still my entire life. The totality of my conscious existence.”

Kane’s words made perfect sense, but Rother still found them difficult to fully comprehend. “It’s not the same…” he declared.

“It’s exactly the same,” countered Kane. “Except that until I joined you I had absolutely no sense of belonging.”

“Belonging?” asked Rother. “You don’t belong to me.”

“Not to,” corrected Kane. “With.”

Mercy’s voice unexpectedly cut short their conversation. “Here they come,” she called out. “Better late than never.”
Albie was crawling the Porsche Cayenne as slowly as he possibly could along Brannon Street in South Beach, waiting for his boss to decide their next move.

“I just can’t see the connection,” said Segarini, for the fourth time. “Mercy Yoo and Matthew Smiddy. Shacked up together overnight in the St. Regis. That’s like the Hu Foundation and Nanovit climbing into bed. Why would they do that?”

“She’s a well-stacked doll,” suggested Albie. “Maybe Smiddy just wanted to play hide the salami with her.”

“I can always trust you to come up with the obvious wrong answer,” growled Segarini. It always dismayed him when other men assumed that large breasts held some kind of universal appeal to every male on earth. “No, there’s something else going on here. I can taste it. Yoo and Smiddy have come together for a reason. I just can’t see the connection.”

“Me neither, Capo,” said Albie.

“Get the fuck out of here,” said Segarini.

“Sorry, Boss, what?” asked Albie. As he spoke he was checking the rear view mirror, and saw that Segarini was not looking at him. He was looking directly to his left.

“Get the fuck out,” he screamed, leaning as far back towards the door as possible.

“There’s nobody there,” stated Albie as calmly as he could manage. He brought the Porsche to a complete stop, even though they were still in the middle of the road.

“Help me, Albie,” pleaded Segarini. “Get this evil little fucker out of here.”

“What is it, Boss? Is it the cat?”

“Of course it’s the fucking cat, you imbecile,” shouted Segarini, who was now shielding his face with his arms.

“No problem, Boss,” said Albie in the most soothing tones he could muster. He climbed out of the car, opened the back door and leaned in. “Here kitty, kitty,” he said.

Segarini’s knees were now raised up so that he was crouched by the far door in an almost foetal position. “Don’t hurt her,” he ordered.

“Don’t worry, Boss,” cooed Albie. “I’ve got her. She’s OK. She’s purring.” He mimed the action of stroking a cat which he was holding gently in his arms.

“Purring?” asked Segarini. “Purring’s good. And the kittens?”

Albie smiled down towards the imaginary cat. “Yeah, Boss, the kittens are fine. I reckon she’ll deliver real soon.”

“Wonderful,” said Segarini. “Wonderful. It’s been so long. You’re sure they’re OK?”

“Mother and babies all doing fine,” Albie assured him.

Segarini sighed and began slowly to uncurl. “OK. Good. Now shut the door and let her go. Watch out for the traffic.”

Albie mimicked the actions exactly as Segarini had dictated them, crossing to the sidewalk and pretending to gently place the cat down, safely out of harm’s way.

“Jesus H. Christ,” he whispered to the imaginary animal. “Thank hellish fuckityness it was just you, Sweetie.”

Of all the wraiths and phantoms that inhabited Segarini’s capricious recurring hallucinations, Sweetie was probably the easiest to dispel. Over the years, because he had no other choice, Albie had learned how to handle them all. There were Segarini’s phantom babies, his schizoid mother, his succubi, his evil angels, his insect parasites … the man’s fertile brain seemed capable of conjuring up an endless danse macabre of goblins, daevas and narakas, summoned from the bowels of every religious doctrine ever inflicted on the unsuspecting inhabitants of earth.

Of them all, of course, Bhalak was the worst, but he was so much more than a hallucination. Bhalak was a possessor. Albie thanked his lucky stars that, for the moment at least, Bhalak had been banished. Sweetie, by comparison, was no problem at all.

By the time Albie had clambered back into the driving seat, Segarini was sitting upright again, as if nothing had transpired. “Now, what was I saying?” he asked.

“You were saying you couldn’t see the connection,” Albie told him.

“Ah, yes, that’s right, my friend. The connection between Mercy Yoo and Matthew Smiddy. The connection between the Hu Foundation and Nanovit. Step on the gas. Let’s go see Challis.”

CHAPTER 38 : Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Gregor Challis tipped his head back, opened his eyes wide and allowed a few drops of artificial tears to drip into each.

His lifelong distrust of commercial eye drops meant that he had, many years since, perfected his own mixture, which he kept in a sealed sterile glass vial at room temperature, always within easy reach on his lab work surface.

The mixture was uncomplicated – boiled water, sea salt and baking soda – but he felt that his unnaturally large eyes demanded the right attention.

Blinking three times, he turned to his mirror and used his index fingers to pull his eyelids down just enough to expose the lower half of the orbs. “Beautiful,” he said. Satisfied that nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, he blinked again, sealed the vial and pushed it away.

Ginger was resting in her favourite spot on his shoulder. He loved when she settled there because it made him feel like he had a friend but now, with several matters requiring his attention, he needed her to return to her terrarium. Reaching up, he placed his open hand directly in front of her and she crawled on, allowing him to lift her over and into her home.

As he did every day, Challis brought his daily maintenance statistics up onto his main screen. He checked the status bars for Elfin’s Rob1ns, monitored the maintenance programmes for the Swarm and made sure that all of Elfin’s neck implants were functioning exactly as intended.

Almost as if on cue, Elfin’s face appeared in an inset at the top right of his screen. “Challis,” ey asked. “You there?”

Challis thought he detected a hint of tension in eir expression, but that was hardly unusual. “Sure,” he replied. “What’s up?”

“I’ve just signed off on the contract with Kupferberg to use some of his so-called faithful as test subjects. It looks OK to me, pretty standard, but I’m passing it through to Peri in Legal just in case there’s anything in there that he doesn’t like the look of. Shouldn’t take him more than an hour, then he’ll send it on down to you for your signature.”

Challis nodded. “Is it troubling you?”

“No … well … yes, you know me. I just don’t like signing stuff.”

“It’s a corporate world,” observed Challis. “Everything has to be checked, double-checked, signed, counter-signed …”

“I know. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Challis tried to sound comforting as he replied, “OK. I’ll give it a once over when Peri gets it to me. How soon does Kupferberg need it back?”

Elfin thought about it for a second before responding. “Funny. He didn’t actually specify a return deadline. If anything, he seemed more interested in me getting it to you quickly.”

Challis shook his head, but only slightly. “Curious,” he said, “but I assume that just means he wants it back as soon as.”

Elfin’s anxious look seemed to intensify just a little. “I guess so,” ey agreed. “Once you’ve signed off, get it copied and courier the original over to Kupferberg. I want it all tied up before the day is out.”

Challis made a mental note that a subtle adjustment to Elfin’s anti-anxiety medication might not be a bad idea. Returning to his maintenance stats, he checked first that eir blood sugar was stable and eir heart rate within tolerable limits, then decided that he wouldn’t meddle with eir benzodiazepines just yet, but maybe a shade more Prozac would be worth introducing into eir daily intake.

He never liked it when Elfin got anxious. Ey tended to make decisions that could make his life a little more complicated than he found comfortable.


“Don’t move,” whispered Mercy.

She and Coral were seated on two wooden swings in Alamo Park. Having just seen three vehicles pull up on Steiner Street, their entire group was wondering how best to play the encounter which was about to take place.

“I mean, don’t run. Let them think they’ve taken us unawares. And don’t put up too much of a fight. No need for anybody to get hurt.”

Coral managed an uncertain laugh. “We’re sitting on swings,” she pointed out. “Shouldn’t we at least be swinging a little?”

“I count at least ten Foundation goons heading towards us,” warned Smiddy.

Mercy re-thought her instructions. “Yeah, OK, I suppose a bit of mild swinging would look more realistic.”

“Aha,” said Rother. “Mild wood swings. I like it.”

The Foundation security team fanned out to encircle the quartet and began to close in.

“Does this strategy make sense to you?” wondered Kane.

“Nothing that’s happened to me in the last couple of days has made any sense,” responded Rother. “At least with Coral and Mercy making the decisions we can blame them if anything goes wrong.”

“I still don’t like it,” said Kane.

Smiddy was the first to put his hands up. “OK guys,” he said. “I’ll come quietly. My Beretta is in my shoulder holster.”

The women brought their swings to a stationary position and stood up. “What the hell is this?” asked Coral.

Kintsugi stepped forward through the ring of security personnel, and placed himself directly in front of Rother, who made a brief show of turning as if to run, but quickly followed Smiddy’s example of raising his hands above his head.

“You’re not under arrest,” stated Kintsugi, “but it will be in all your best interests to come with us.”

“Doesn’t look much like we have any other choice,” growled Smiddy.

“Good to see you again,” Kintsugi said to Rother. “You’re looking better than you did in the Bayview Residence.”

Tempted though he was to offer his hand to Kintsugi in a gesture of congratulation, Rother resisted the urge. It was, he felt, too soon to attempt to transfer Kane into the other man’s body.

“Agreed,” confirmed Kane. “No sense in rushing into it.”

Kintsugi turned to face Mercy. “And you, Miss Yoo, what do you think you’re playing at?”

“Playing? We’ve been too busy running to be playing at anything.”

Kintsugi chuckled. “No,” he said, “I know you well enough to know that you’ve got something in mind.”

“I’m just wondering if this is going to blow my promotion?” she riposted.

“Depends,” said Kintsugi.

The quartet allowed themselves to be shepherded down the slope towards Steiner Street, where a fourth vehicle, a van with blacked-out windows, had now parked behind the others.

“Our ride seems to have arrived,” laughed Smiddy.

“Anything, Luci?” asked Kupferberg.

Starkrost sighed and stopped sterilising his work surface long enough to look over at his comms screen. “Not according to the tracking monitor. It’s not in Elfin’s suite, so it looks like ey’s passed it through to the legal team. I’ve got Challis’s lab bugged so I’ll know as soon as it arrives with him.”

Switching to a screen displaying Kupferberg’s face, Starkrost asked. “Are you feeling OK? You look nervy.”

“Why would I not be nervy?” retorted Kupferberg. “We’re about to kill Elfin Nano’s head science geek. Are you absolutely sure it will be undetectable?”


“And the contract? Will it be legally binding?”

Starkrost cackled exultantly. “If they’ve both signed it, and their legal team has passed it, sure it’ll be binding, but that barely matters. With Challis’ butt stuck in the eternal booty call with beelzebub, what matters is that you’ll be in prime position to replace him as Elfin’s No1.”

Much as Kupferberg liked the sound of that, he was increasingly concerned about Starkrost. Could he still be trusted? Was he going off the rails? To Kupferberg, it felt as if Starkrost had manoeuvred him into entering a world so unlike anything they’d ever experienced before that the possibilities for disaster would be multiplied exponentially.

“Sorry, what was that?” asked Starkrost.

“What was what?”

“You just said, ‘I don’t like it.’ You don’t like what?”

Kupferberg gulped. He was not aware of having said anything aloud. “Did I say that?” he asked. “It’s nothing.”

“You definitely said it,” confirmed Starkrost. “Listen, if you need another shot…”

It took him only a second to consider the offer. “Maybe I do. Yes. Probably.”

“I’ve got plenty down here. Do you want to come to me or…”

“Bring it up. I’ve got another call coming in.”

Kupferberg abruptly cut Starkrost off and connected to the switchboard. “Yes, hello?”

“Sorry to interrupt you, sir,” said the operator, “but it’s an odd one.”

“So do I really need to take it?”

“It’s just …” the operator was struggling to decide what to say. “I really don’t know how to handle it…”

“Who the fuck is it, man?”

“Well, she says she’s your daughter.”

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