INSIDERS : Chapters 41 and 42 – gripping pandemic-based sci-fi thriller

CHAPTER 41 : You Are What Eats You

“Sorry if this is awkward,” said Kintsugi’s lips, “but I just wanted to tell you how much I miss you.”

Rother stared, his eyes growing wider with each second that passed. The face in front of him was Kintsugi, but the voice was now unmistakably Kane.

Before Rother could respond, Kane continued. “Getting you on your own was the only way I could think of at short notice. Is it weird? Is it inappropriate for me to do this?”

“Weird?” asked Rother. “Inappropriate?” Having anticipated that he might never again speak with Kane, Rother was completely taken aback. “It’s downright grotesque is what it is. Utterly bizarre.” He paused to gather his thoughts but Kane said nothing more, so he resumed, turning out words on autopilot. “Totally ludicrous … but … you know … it’s actually good to still be able to hear your voice. I mean, how come you still have the same voice when you’re using Kintsugi’s lungs and throat and tongue? That’s pretty weird for starters.”

Kane laughed. “Yes!” he said. “It’s all weird. I was just about getting used to being your symbiotic partner and now I’m in Kintsugi.”

“And you’re talking to me.”

“And we’re still friends,” said Kane. “Aren’t we?”

“I’m kind of … have you come across the word ‘gobsmacked’? I think the British use it a lot more than we do.”

“Gobsmacked?” repeated Kane. “Yes, that was in your memory. Really didn’t expect to be using it, but I get it.”

“Well,” said Rother, “that’s how I’m feeling now. I’ve no idea what’s going on. What the fuck are you playing at?”

“I was hoping you might see the funny side of it,” suggested Kane.

“The funny side?” countered Rother. “What’s funny about you sending the others away under guard so you can have a confidential chat with me about how much you’re missing me?”

“Humour,” said Kane. “It’s such a personal thing, don’t you think? Slapstick, deadpan, satire, wordplay … “

“And which category did you think this might fall into?” demanded Rother. “Scaring me half to death, making me worry about what’s happening to the others … maybe you think it’s situational humour, impromptu humour …”

“I just kind of hoped you’d get it. I was tricking you and you fell for it. That’s a kind of humour, don’t you think?”

“Maybe being kidnapped for reasons I didn’t understand, strapped to a bed, fed who knows what kinds of drugs, being chased by armed security gorillas, maybe … maybe somewhere along that line I lost my sense of humour…”

“Oh,” said Kane. “I somehow doubt it.” As he spoke, he made Kinsugi’s face break into a smile.

“Don’t do that,” objected Rother. “It’s not funny. There’s nothing funny about any …” The sentence ended there because Rother could no longer deny to himself that he too was now smiling and that Kane could plainly see it.

“So we are still friends?” asked Kane.

Rother was reluctant to give his former symbiote the satisfaction of knowing he had won the point. Instead of saying anything, he looked down at the floor between his feet so that Kane could not see his smile turning into a wide grin.

It was, eventually, Kane who resumed the dialogue. “What do you think of Kintsugi’s face?”

“Bland. Same as it ever was,” replied Rother.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Kane. “I’m resisting the temptation to explore his exterior surfaces. I learned that from your reactions. You humans don’t like it, do you?”

Rother sighed. “What was your first clue? Look, no, don’t answer that. I don’t need to know. Could you just focus on telling me something useful?”

After a brief pause, Kane said, “The others are safe. I’ll get Kintsugi to give the order to set them all free shortly.”

“Good,” replied Rother, hoping their conversation was becoming a shade more wothwhile.

“Meanwhile, though,” continued Kane, “I really can’t say this too often, I am missing you.”

Rother looked up until he caught Kintsugi’s eyes. “You really can say it too often. Believe me.”

“Oh,” said Kane, sounding crestfallen. “But it’s true.”

“I know,” conceded Rother. “But you can definitely say it too often.”

“Kintsugi won’t remember any of this.”

“That’s not the point.”

Silence fell again between them, but now it seemed curiously amplified because one of the room’s fluorescent tubes was buzzing intermittently. “You know what I’ve discovered by being in Kintsugi?” asked Kane.

“Well, obviously, no,” replied Rother. “How could I?”

“True,” agreed Kane. “How could you? Well, you remember I told you that I found it harder to be in Mercy than in you?”

Rother nodded.

“I think I know why. I’ve found out from Kintsugi’s memories that he was never given the anti-vaccine against me. And neither were you. So I think Mercy probably was.”

Rother’s attention levels perked up. “That makes perfect sense,” he said. “She was forever being given new jabs, virtually every week they’d vaccinate her against some new thing. The Foundation is big on that.”

Kintsugi’s face smiled and his head nodded enthusiastically. “So I’m having no problem bedding in to Kintsugi,” said Kane’s voice. “He was too busy pursuing you to stop long enough to have the vaccination.”

“Good thing for us that he was,” observed Rother. “Lucky break. Just about the only one we’ve had. So now you’re in Kintsugi, and I’m back to being just me again, just like we planned.”

Kane’s response took a shade longer to come than Rother expected. “So … do you not miss me?”

Rother tried to think of a satisfactory reply, but the best he could summon up was a limp, “Ask me again when all of this is over.”

Kane nodded Kintsugi’s head. The silence that followed was difficult for both of them until Rother said, “So what’s next?”

“We’re going to have to go the rest of the way on foot,” said Starkrost, leaning in through the rear door of the Uber.

“I should have known,” replied Kupferberg. “Pay the man and let’s get going.”

What might have been an annoyance for anybody else gave Kupferberg, with his preference for walking, a feeling of smug self-satisfaction. Starkrost had convinced him to travel by car from The Tempel to the Nanovit HQ, arguing that it would be faster and that speed was of the essence in their current situation.

It was, he had insisted, imperative that they get to Challis’s lab in the Nanovit HQ as quickly as possible to find out what had happened to the booby-trapped box. “You wouldn’t want it falling into the wrong hands, would you?” Starkrost had asked.

“Maybe if you’d installed a hidden camera instead of just an audio bug in the lab, we’d already know that,” pointed out Kupferberg.

The Uber had carried them to within a few hundred yards of the Nanovit HQ on Washington Street when the driver informed them that the road up ahead was blocked. “Looks like some dickhead has run into one of the streetlights.”

While Starkrost paid the driver, Kupferberg clambered out and started striding towards their destination. Starkrost ran to catch up and came level with Kupferberg just as they passed the scene of the accident. The crashed vehicle was on the far side of Washington Street, and Starkrost couldn’t get a clear view because of the rescue service vehicles parked around. “Shit,” he said. “Looks like it turned right upside down.”

Kupferberg did not pause to look but said, “Dumfucks. I told you we should walk, didn’t I?”

“Three bodies on the ground,” added Starkrost.

“Keep moving,” ordered Kupferberg.

When they arrived just minutes later outside the Nanovit building, they were surprised to be able to enter without encountering any security. “God!” declared Starkrost. “You don’t think they’ve found Challis already, do you?”

Kupferberg looked around at the confusion of Nanovit employees rushing from place to place. “This is chaos. Something’s up,” he said. “Nobody even on reception.”

He clamped a hand onto the shoulder of a passing staff member in a white lab coat and demanded, “What’s going on?”

The woman shook off his hand but paused long enough to reply, “Elfin Nano’s collapsed,” before rushing off again.

Kupferberg and Starkrost moved to the nearest wall and positioned themselves close to it. “Elfin Nano?” queried Starkrost.

“That’s what she said.”

“Could Elfin have opened the box?” suggested Starkrost, but the moment he had said the words, he realised it was not a possibility. “No, no, we know she had passed the box on to her legal people and we know they passed it through to Challis.”

The mayhem all around them seemed to have intensified, even in the short time during which they had stood watching anxious Nanovit staffers race in and out of the reception area. “This is madness,” said Kupferberg, “but what does it mean for us?”

Apprehensive, not just because of all the additional dust that was being disturbed but because of the staff’s accelerated breathing rates, Starkrost pulled a multi-layered mask out of his sleeve, and raised it to his face. “Changes the whole game,” he said, trying to marshal the changing facts in his head. “If Elfin and Challis are both dead, then there’s no-one in charge of Nanovit…”

“But what about the contract?” asked Kupferberg.

“That all depends, doesn’t it? If Challis signed it before Segarini terminated him…”

“Then I’ll have a legal claim to assume Elfin’s position…”

“Yes, but only if we can locate the contract,” pointed out Starkrost. As he spoke, he was looking across at the still unoccupied reception desk. “Give me a minute. I think I can probably locate Challis’ office on the system over there.”

“Be quick,” said Kupferberg. “Move.” His expression grew ever more perturbed as he watched the ungainly Starkrost navigate his clumsy way across the reception area through the melee but, before too long, he was seated at the desk, punching keys.

His eyes lit up and he flashed a thumbs up sign to Kupferberg. “We’re gonna need the elevator,” he called out, pointing towards a nearby corridor.

“Jugular vein?” asked Coral. “Or carotid artery?”

Scant moments before, a burly Foundation security man had opened the stationery cupboard door, then stepped back to allow Kintsugi and Rother through.

As the door slammed shut again behind them, Coral had bounded out from behind it, jumped onto Kintsugi’s back and pressed the business edge of a small blade against his throat. “The choice is yours,” she told him.

Rother stepped away from Kintsugi, glared at Coral and demanded, “Where the hell did you hide that?”

“You’d rather not know,” the young woman replied, smiling innocently.

“She’s so right,” agreed Mercy.

“OK,” said Rother. “But before you go slitting his throat … that’s not Kintsugi. It’s Kane.”

Mercy took one step forwards. “But he said…”

“Doesn’t matter what he said,” insisted Rother. “The transfer worked. This is Kane.”

“Looks like Kintsugi to me,” persisted Smiddy.

“I’m Kane,” said Kintsugi’s mouth.

“It’s Kane,” confirmed Rother.

“Getting harder to know who’s who these days,” pointed out Smiddy, looking directly at Rother. “Come to think of it, how do we even know who you are?”

“You don’t,” conceded Rother. “But if you want to walk out of here right now, you’re just going to have to trust me. Well, us.”

Mercy and Coral exchanged doubtful looks. “What d’you say?” asked Coral.

Mercy nodded slightly and Coral reluctantly moved her blade away from Kintsugi’s throat, slid down his back and stepped away from him. “Pity,” she muttered under her breath. “I kind of liked the view from up there.”

Mercy approached Rother and tilted her head a little to the right. “You look like Doogle,” she said, moving even closer and sniffing his chest. “And you smell like Doogle. Need a shower though.” She kissed him on the cheek and the pair touched noses.

A thaw seemed to be setting in, so Kane took the opportunity to try to explain what was going on. “I’m sorry about all of this. I know it’s confusing…”

“Confusing?” repeated Smiddy. “It’s borderline insane.”

“… but I had to explain something to Rother before I could deal with all of you together. You’re quite a formidable bunch. Kind of intimidating.”

Rother was closely watching all of their puzzled reactions and now felt he had to attempt to intercede on Kane’s behalf. “Remember,” he began, “Kane is massively intelligent, and possessed of genuinely mind-boggling abilities, but he’s still only weeks old. He’s still trying to get to grips with life among us humans.”

“You know him better than any of us,” said Mercy. “We really don’t have much choice other than to be guided by you.”

“Glad to hear it,” rejoined Kane, “because we really don’t have a lot of time. I’ve instructed Kintsugi’s security to set all of you free under my supervision but, realistically, there’s no telling how long they’ll accept my authority.”

“You mean his authority,” clarified Mercy.

“Exactly,” agreed Kane. “If I was the head of Foundation Cogent security, right now I’d be contacting the head office in Incheon. Luckily, there’s been a huge administrative shake-up so the lines of communication, and the internal loyalties are all in something of a state of flux right now, so that should work to our advantage, could give us a little more time to cobble together something resembling a strategy.”

“I’d say we need a list of priorities,” suggested Rother. “Can we get out of this cupboard and start putting something together?”

“Sounds good,” agreed Coral. “But first, before we go, anybody need any A4 envelopes, printer paper, felt-tip pens …?”

CHAPTER 42 : Dead Head

“This is it,” said Starkrost, pushing open the door to Challis’ lab.

Stepping in, Kupferberg said, “Oh, I like this. Very spacious, very businesslike.”

“A bit grimy for my taste,” observed Starkrost, running the tip of a near-skeletal finger across the nearest workspace.

“When it’s yours,” commented Kupferberg, “you can sparkle it up to your own exacting standards.”

“Rest assured,” said Starkrost. “Rest bloody assured. I couldn’t function in a slum like this.”

Kupferberg laughed. “So where’s Challis?” he mused.

Starkrost slowly scanned the scene, taking in every detail. “If that splatter’s anything to go by,” he said, pointing at a bloodstained wall across the room, “Challis should be somewhere down behind that bank of screens.”

They moved slowly round the workstation, one from each end until, as Starkrost had indicated, they arrived at the blood-spattered corpse of Gregory Challis.

Together, they lifted him up onto his chair and attempted unsuccessfully to make him sit upright. “Why are we doing this?” asked Kupferberg.

“I thought you wanted to,” replied Starkrost.

“No. I thought maybe you did.”

After one final half-hearted attempt to sit Challis up, they bowed to the inevitable and let him flop face down onto the work surface.

“Shall I …?” asked Starkrost, accompanying the unfinished sentence with a twisting gesture of his bony right hand.

“I suppose we should,” conceded Kupferberg. “But I don’t want to see it.”

He looked away while Starkrost turned Challis’ head round in order to get a good look at his face. “Confirmed,” he said. “The right eye is gone.”

“And,” added Kupferberg, “it looks to me like the box has gone too.”

Starkrost let the limp head clunk back down onto the workspace. “What would Segarini want with the box? What’s it to him?”

“Nothing,” answered Kupferberg. “Nothing I know of … unless…”

Both of their eyes widened at the same moment and Starkrost completed the speculation. “Unless Challis was holding on to it, gripping it tight, and Segarini concluded that it might contain something of importance.”

“Shit,” cursed Kupferberg. “So now we’ve got to find Segarini.”

“So, at least for the moment,” summed up Mercy, “we’ve got the Hu Foundation onside.”

“Only until somebody figures out Kintsugi’s behaving out of character,” countered Rother.

“Thank you Mr. Brightside. way to be positive,” sighed Mercy.

“Just trying to keep it real,” pointed out Rother.

“Fine. Can we at least agree that we’ve bought ourselves some time by co-opting Kintsugi onto our team?” The others nodded and made no immediate objections, so she continued. “That leaves us Elfin Nano and her chum Gregory Challis to deal with, plus Kupferberg and his sidekick Lucifer Starkrost…”

“Not forgetting Segarini who seems to have been on our tail since we left the St. Regis,” noted Smiddy. “And wherever Segarini goes, his little slimeball buddy Albie Bach goes along with him.”

“And what’s their interest?” asked Rother. “I mean, we really know nothing about them, do we?”

Smiddy shook his head and held up one hand. “You know nothing about them. In my line of business I’ve run up against them time and again over the years and I count myself lucky to still be alive and possessed of two eyeballs despite our occasional encounters.”

“So what’s their interest?” repeated Rother.

“Purely pecuniary, I’d guess,” hazarded Smiddy. “Segarini is nothing more or less than a hired killer. A very good one, very thorough, very expensive. Brutal. And Albie Bach is the Jeeves to Segarini’s sociopathic Wooster.”

“Like that vile English sauce?” asked Coral. “They dole it on their meat pies, don’t they?”

Tempted though he was to launch into a spirited defence of Worcestershire sauce, Rother decided to save it for another time and merely said, “No. It’s not the sauce. This Wooster is a fictional lame brain English nobleman, and Jeeves is his brainiac butler. Remind me later and I’ll lend you the books.”

Coral, fortunately, took no offence. “So you’re saying that Albie Bach is actually smarter than his boss?” she asked.

“Clever girl,” said Smiddy.

“Patronise me again and I’ll be stringing your balls onto my bangles,” she advised him.

Mercy laughed to herself, but had to swerve hard to get the conversation back on track. “OK. Simmer down everybody. If nothing else, we’re starting to have some idea of who we’re up against…”

Kane chose this moment to wade in. “Hang on. Wait a minute. Look at this…” He turned up the volume on Kintsugi’s handheld screen.

“Breaking News,” declared the newsreader. “We’re just getting word of something taking place in the Nanovit HQ building on Washington Street. No details as yet, but we’ll take you directly there as soon as we have anything…”

Without any further warning, the monitor switched to a view from the entrance of the building where a reporter was firing off an update. “It’s unconfirmed right now but what we’re hearing is that Elfin Nano, the boss of the Nanovit Knowledge chain, has collapsed at their Washington Street HQ. We’re expecting further details at any moment but we’re not being allowed in …”

An ambulance screeched to a stop directly in front of the reporter, blocking the view but her voice continued, saying, “You should be able to see an ambulance which has just arrived after managing to navigate past a crashed vehicle a few hundred yards away which itself is being attended by an ambulance crew…”

“Elfin Nano?” asked Coral. “She’s on our list, right?”

“Looks like all hell breaking loose,” observed Rother. “I think we should be down there…”

Kane turned down the volume on the tv report and said, “This has to be connected. Rother’s right. We should get down there.”

“Connected?” asked Mercy. “You mean connected to us? Connected to what’s been happening to us?”

“Even if it’s just a coincidence, we need to know what’s going on,” said Rother. “but Elfin Nano collapsing? Right at this moment? It’s just too much to be a coincidence.”

“I don’t like this,” argued Mercy. “We never get time to think anything through…”

“You’re right,” agreed Kane, “but I don’t think we’ve got any choice. It’s just a couple of miles from here. I can order up some Foundation cars and we’ll be down there in minutes.”

Mercy remained uncomfortable with the speed at which events seemed to be overtaking them, but the feeling in the group was overwhelmingly that they should get over to the Nanovit HQ and see for themselves exactly what was going on.

Raking through Kintsugi’s brain, Kane came across something useful. “The Foundation’s also got Hu Cares ambulances. If we call in a couple of those we can arrive at Nanovit and appear to be offering assistance.”

“We can’t just stand here debating this all day,” insisted Smiddy. “If we’re going, let’s go.”


Elfin Nano opened one eye, blinked it several times, then opened the other.

“What?” ey mumbled as ey tried to make sense of the activity above eir. “Who are you?”

An ambulance man was bending over her, touching the side of eir neck. “What are you doing?” Ey could feel his fingers running over eir skin and ey did not like it. “Leave me alone.”

Ey tried to sit up but couldn’t find the strength in eir upper body, couldn’t even make eir arms do what ey wanted them to. “Where am I?”

“We haven’t moved you,” said the ambulance man. “You’re still on the floor, just where you fell.”

“Fell?” Elfin felt nothing but confusion.

“You collapsed,” explained the man.

“Collapsed? Why would I collapse?”

Another head came into view above eir. “That’s what we’re trying to establish.” This one was a youngish woman in a light blue medical tunic. “What can you remember?”

“Gregor,” ey replied. “He was going to help me…” Ey tried to raise a hand up to eir neck but couldn’t remember why.

“I’m Doctor Hira. You’re still very weak,” the woman told her. “Is Gregor a friend?”

Elfin heard a voice in the background saying, “Gregor Challis. He’ll be up in his lab. He’s Elfin’s right hand man.”

“Is that right?” the woman asked Elfin. “Gregor’s your right hand man?”

Elfin tried to shake eir head but even that simple action seemed to be beyond eir. “Gregor’s new,” ey managed to say. “He’s going to help me.”

The unseen background voice contradicted her. “Gregor’s been here for years. He’s her Chief Science Enabler. He made the neck implants you’ve been looking at.”

The woman nodded. “Could someone go and get him?” she asked, then turned back to Elfin. “You need to rest. Just relax. We’ve got you.”

Despite having been conscious for no more than a few moments, Elfin was overcome with tiredness and, at the urging of the woman, ey gladly flopped back, closed eir eyes and drifted off into dreams of the family garden.

“This is worse than it was when we came in,” observed Starkrost, as he and Kupferberg made their way through the Nanovit reception area, heading for the exit.

“Looks like young Elfin has made the evening news,” added Kupferberg. “Wonderful what dying can do for your public profile.”

“Who says ey’s dead?”

“Good point.” Kupferberg walked up to a news cameraman and asked, “What’s the latest on Elfin Nano?”

“Watch the news,” he grunted unhelpfully, without even removing his eye from the eyepiece.

Kupferberg checked his tele-link and relayed the information to Starkrost as they stepped out into the open air. “They’re saying she collapsed and her condition is ‘critical’, whatever that might mean.”

“Not dead,” said Starkrost.

“Mmmmmm,” agreed Kupferberg.

“So what now?” asked Starkrost.

“Now we find Segarini.”

As they walked away from the hubbub around the Nanovit building, Starkrost was looking ahead towards the crashed vehicle they’d passed on the way in. “Porsche Cayenne,” he said. “Nice set of wheels.”

“Greasemonkey,” glared Kupferberg. “What is it about cars that gives you such a hard-on?”

The closer they came to the limo, the more Starkrost inclined his lanky frame towards it. He was leaning over the ‘Police – Do Not Cross’ tape when he reached back and grabbed Kupferberg’s arm.

“I think we can stop looking for Segarini,” he said.

Now he had Kupferberg’s full attention. The pair came to a halt. “Are you sure?”

“Well, they’ve covered his face,” replied Starkrost, “but who else would be caught dead in the Financial District wearing R M Williams Saltwater Crocodile Leather boots under Canali FW21s?”

“You’d know better than me,” sighed Kupferberg. “Put me out of my fucking misery.”

“Between the boots, the trousers, the Cayenne and the stunted little runt on the ground to his left,” summed up Starkrost, “I’d say 99.99% that’s what used to be Segarini.” He paused briefly before adding, “And as for that little black box beside the rear wheel…”

Kupferberg looked in the direction Starkrost was indicating. “It’s the box!” he declared.

Starkrost nodded barely perceptibly and looked off in the opposite direction. “Yes, that is indeed the information I was endeavouring to communicate to you.”

“Enough!” scowled Kupferberg. “I can do without your attempts at sardonic wit.”

Starkrost fell silent, but thought to himself, “Yes, but you can’t do without my Crank Max, can you?”

“What do you think?” Kupferberg wondered aloud.

“He must have boosted my box from Challis’ lab, then opened it in the back of the Cayenne as they pulled away…”

“Which would have triggered your vapour.”

Starkrost made a hissing sound and wriggled his fingers up in front of his face from his chin to his hairline. “Ka-blooey,” he whispered.

The pair surveyed the scene for a few seconds before Starkrost said, “Looks to be only one cop on duty here. All of the ructions at the Nanovit building must have drawn the others away. If you were to go down the far corner and distract the cop for a couple minutes, I could probably slip through the tape…”

Barely two minutes passed before Kupferberg was calling the duty officer over and engaging him with a series of questions that kept him distracted long enough for Starkrost to sneak over to the box, remove the contract, stuff it into a pocket and slip back outside the tape.

“Thank you, officer,” said Kupferberg, stepping back. “That’s all very helpful. I hope I haven’t taken you away from your duties for too long.”

“No hassle,” said the cop. “I don’t think these stiffs are going anywhere in a hurry. Have a good day.”

“Respiration’s up. Pulse steady,” said Doctor Hira. “I think she’s coming round again.”

Both of Elfin Nano’s eyes opened together.

“Elfin, can you hear me?”

“I think so,” replied Elfin. “Who are you?”

“I’m Doctor Hira. Do you remember? You collapsed.”

“Collapsed? Where?” Elfin’s eyelids opened and closed several times, but it seemed to the doctor that the movements were erratic, not entirely voluntary. “Isn’t Gregor here? He was going to help me.”

Anxious looks passed between the doctor and the other medical staff gathered around Elfin. “Gregor’s not here at the moment,” lied Doctor Hira. She decided it was perhaps for the best if Elfin Nano wasn’t told that Gregor Challis had been found twenty minutes earlier, dead at the workstation in his lab. “How are you feeling, Elfin?”

The simple question seemed to cause Elfin considerable stress, and eir body tensed up visibly. “I can’t move my head,” ey managed to say.

Doctor Hira squeezed Elfin’s fingers. “Can you feel this?”

“Feel what?”

The doctor shook her head and whispered to a colleague, “I’m not liking this. Get me a pin,” before resuming her normal speaking voice to say, “Elfin, can you close your eyes for me?”

Elfin blinked once. “Like this?”

“Yes, but can you keep them closed?”

Elfin tried but failed and, again, the effort brought stress into eir face.

“OK,” soothed Doctor Hira. Accepting the pin from a nurse, she moved her hand up to Elfin’s cheek and said, “Can you see my hand?”


“That’s good. Really good.” The doctor turned the pin round so that the blunt end touched Elfin’s cheek. “Can you feel that?”

“I can see your hand,” repeated Elfin.

“But you can’t feel me touching your cheek?”

“Your hand is moving. I can see it. Where’s Gregor?”

Doctor Hira attempted to continue checking Elfin’s response levels, but with a feeling of increasing dismay. “You can see my hand moving, but you can’t feel me touching your cheek? Is that right?”

‘Gregor,” said Elfin. “Gregor can fix this.”

The doctor turned the pin round and pressed the sharp end gently onto Elfin’s cheek, but there was no obvious reaction. “You didn’t feel that, did you?” she asked.

“Feel what?” asked Elfin.

“It’s OK,” said the doctor. “Just relax.” She gently stroked Elfin’s forehead and smiled as she turned away. “Just rest.”

Coming face to face with a young male colleague, she said, “It’s not good. We’re going to have to get her to the hospital as soon as.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I wish I knew,” she replied. “I’ve never seen anything exactly like it before. She’s conscious, but virtually nothing else. It’s as if everything but her most basic functions have shut down.”

“She’s so beautiful,” commented the nurse. “Why does it always feel so much worse when they’re beautiful?”

Hira immediately bristled at the words. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that,” she told him.

Behind them, Elfin slipped again into unconsciousness.

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