INSIDERS : Chapters 43 and 44 – gripping pandemic-based sci-fi thriller

CHAPTER 43 : Sudden Deaths Syndrome

“Of course you want to sound the fucking siren,” asserted Rother. “We’re arriving at the scene of an incident in a Foundation ambulance. Can you imagine anything that would look more conspicuous than an ambulance sneaking in trying to look inconspicuous. And the lights too.”

The stratagem worked precisely as Rother had hoped, and the ambulance was able to drive to within a couple of hundred yards of the entrance to the Nanovit HQ before encountering a solitary police officer who flagged them to a halt.

“Here we go, Kane,” said Rother. “You’re on.”

Kane slid the door back and stepped down to confront the officer, flashing Kintsugi’s Foundation ID prominently in the man’s face. “Kintsugi Joon-woo,” he announced. “Hu Medica. We got the call to assist with your situation. Someone collapsed?”

The officer was clearly impressed, but wasn’t afraid to stand his ground. “To the best of my knowledge,” he replied, “That situation is under control. The young woman is already being attended to.”

Kane turned towards Rother and waved an arm at the ambulance. “I have a team of specialists with me. Anything we can do to assist …”

From inside the ambulance, Smiddy was surveying the scene. “Hey, Rother,” he said. “You see that Porsche Cayenne?”

“Sure. Pretty badly smashed up.”

“That’s not the point,” said Smiddy. “It was a grey Porsche Cayenne that followed us when we left the St. Regis. Can’t be too many of those in San Francisco.”

“I’m on it,” stated Rother as he and Smiddy climbed out and took up positions flanking Kane. “What about them?” Rother asked, indicating the bodies laid out beside the crashed Porsche.

The officer looked over. “Not connected, as far as we know. Coincidence.”

Looking for an excuse to get closer, Rother asked, “So how did they die? Just the crash?”

The officer pushed his cap a little further back on his balding head. “We haven’t had a good-lookin’ chance to find out. They can’t have been doing much above thirty on this stretch, so the impact probably shouldn’t have been enough to kill all of them …”

Rother flashed a sideways look at Kane, then said, “So you really don’t know how they died? Which means you also don’t know for sure whether or not they’re connected to the situation in the Nanovit building…”

“Well, I guess not,” conceded the officer.

Quickly sensing Rother’s direction of travel, Kane pitched in. “As I said, anything we can do to assist, like, uh … why don’t we have a look at your bodies. We could do a quick assessment for you, not a comprehensive autopsy, obviously, but it might give you a better handle on what’s actually going on here.”

“I’m really not sure about that,” hedged the officer. “I don’t have the authority to OK an autopsy…”

“Of course,” said Rother. “We’re not suggesting a full autopsy, but we can take a preliminary look for you. Needn’t even be hands on. I’m sure you know how important it is for a body to be examined as soon as possible after death…”


“It’s a waste of resources for us to have come all this way and not be able to assist in any way,” continued Rother. Turning to Kane he switched tack. “Doctor Kintsugi, can you confirm what I’m saying here?”

“Absolutely, Doctor,” responded Kane. “The clock is ticking. If there is a connection between this crash and what’s going on in Nanovit, we should be able to give you an initial steer, even just from a visual examination of the bodies.”

“I’d need to call it in,” insisted the officer.

“Naturally,” said Rother. “Please do that. And while you’re doing that, we can get ourselves set up…”

The officer was clearly not happy about it, but Rother and Smiddy were already moving towards the bodies as he started making his call. “Doctor, you can’t just do that. I’m still calling it in…”

“What harm can it do?” interrupted Kane. “They’re just taking a look. It could prove vital…”

Having now made his connection, the officer was clearly becoming increasingly distracted. “Go ahead, Rooney,” said a voice from his communicator.

“Hang on, I’ve got a situation developing here…” replied Officer Rooney.

Kane raised up Kintsugi’s ID again, holding it directly in front of Rooney’s face. “Look. Listen. This is a genuine offer of assistance. We can help.”

While Rooney was being distracted, Rother managed to kneel down beside the first of the bodies and pulled back the cover from his face. Looking over his shoulder, Smiddy confirmed. “That’s Segarini. So the little guy beside him must be Albie Bach.”

“And,” observed Rother, “there’s hardly a mark on them. I can’t see any blood, nothing suggesting any obvious injuries. It doesn’t look like the crash killed them.”

Meanwhile, Officer Rooney had managed to disentangle himself from Kane and turned to catch sight of Rother and Smiddy. “Hey, you two, get away from there,” he yelled.

“Rooney, do you need assistance?” inquired the voice from his communicator.

Smiddy stood up and gave an encouraging thumbs up to Rooney, while telling Rother, “OK. We’ve got what we need here. Let’s go.”

As Rother turned round, a flash of light caught his eye, a refection of sunlight from a long, thin, silver object on the road beside Segarini. Instinctively, despite having no idea what it might be, he scooped it up and pocketed it.

Smiling broadly, he and Smiddy made their way back to Kane’s side. “Thanks, officer, you’ve been a great help,” Kane was saying. “Sorry we couldn’t be of more assistance, but we’ll just carry on now.” Turning back to the ambulance, he leaned in through the door and shouted, “Ladies, get that stretcher out. We’re going in.”

Kupferberg glanced briefly out from The Tempel, looking over the southern limits of The Presidio. “We used to have a rail line that ran through here. It went between Mason Street and Halleck Street,” he said distractedly. “The State Belt Railroad. They closed it down in the 90s.”

“Fascinating though that may be,” stated Starkrost unconvincingly, “looking through this contract again, I think you do have a valid claim to take over Nanovit. With Challis dead, there’s no-one else directly in line to assume control in the event of Elfin dying. Given a power vacuum like that, you’d be in a strong position.”

“Glad to hear it, but Elfin isn’t dead,” pointed out Kupferberg.

“That could change at any moment,” argued Starkrost. “From what we were told earlier, ey’s in a pretty bad state. If eir health deteriorates…”

“Have we sent her a get well soon card?”

“Nobody sends those any more,” objected Starkrost, alarmed that Kupferberg seemed to be having difficulty focussing on the matter at hand. “I could send an electronic greeting, if you think we should.”

“Yes. Do that,” ordered Kupferberg. “Do it right away. Wish the girl well. We don’t want to appear unsympathetic.”

“No,” concurred Starkrost, “I don’t suppose we do.” After a brief pause, he asked, “Are you feeling OK? Could you be doing with another shot?”

“You know what? I think I could.”

“Let me get that together for you,” offered Starkrost. He found himself wondering if this might be the moment to administer an overdose, but he dismissed the idea almost as soon as it arrived. It would work best, he realised, if The One could be put in place as the head of Nanovit first. Under those circumstances, he would be second in command, ideally placed to assume control.

“We used to call it the Toonerville Trolley” said Kupferberg.

“You used to call what The Toonerville Trolley?” asked Starkrost.

“The State Belt Railroad,” declared Kupferberg. “Do you never pay any attention to anything I say?”

Carrying the stretcher between them, Mercy and Coral strode confidently into the still bustling Nanovit reception area. Kane came up beside them and confronted the first nurse they encountered. “Kintsugi, Foundation Medical Emergency,” he stated, presenting his ID prominently. “Who’s in charge here?”

Before the nurse had a chance to respond, a petite, dark-haired woman stepped in front of Kane. “You can speak to me,” she told him. “I’m Doctor Hira.”

Rocognising that a weeks-old virus, however intelligent, might quickly find itself out of its depth trying to negotiate with such an obviously self-confident medical professional, Rother stepped forward. “Director Kintsugi,” he said. “You’re needed urgently by the team outside. This is just medical, so I can handle this for you.”

“One of you make your mind up,” stated Doctor Hira. “We’re in the middle of an emergency here. I haven’t got all day to hang around while you debate who’s going to speak to me.”

As Kane turned away, Rother placed himself directly in her line of vision and said, “It’s me. The director has other priorities right now. I’m a doctor, a pathologist specifically, with FME. We’re responding to the call about Elfin Nano.”

Doctor Hira favoured him with a dismissive semi-smile. “Too late,” she said. “Mx Nano’s already been picked up. Ey’s on eir way to UCSF.”

Rother returned her smile and tried not to appear too concerned. “OK, thanks,” he began, “but, paperwork, you know how it is, I need to make some kind of report on this call out. What condition was ey in when ey left here?”

Completely unflustered, Doctor Hira stared into Rother’s face. “You didn’t give me a name. You didn’t show me any ID…”

“My apologies, Doctor. It’s been one of those days, frantic, you know. My ID tag’s on my tunic back in the ambulance, but you saw Director Kintsugi’s ID and you know I’m with him.”

Mercy waded in with, “Doctor Rother, I can run back to the wagon and get your ID, if it helps…”

Doctor Hira looked from one to the other and appeared less than impressed, but she said, “Look, if it wasn’t such a madhouse here I’d tell you to fuck off, but spit it out, tell me what you need, quick as you can, and I’ll give you thirty seconds. Starting now.”

Rother dived in. “What condition was Elfin Nano in when she left your care?”

“She was in a coma,” replied Doctor Hira. “But not like any coma I’ve seen before. The best way I can describe it is to say she’s neither here nor there. She comes and goes. When she’s conscious, she has some vision, some limited auditory function, minimal speech … that’s about it. When she’s out she’s as near to dead as anything I’ve ever seen this side of a morgue. Time’s up. I’ve got another one to go see right now.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Did you say another one? Anything we can assist with?”

“Boy, you guys are one peachy keen pack of puppies. No assistance required, thank you. The good Mr. Challis is already beyond the pale.” She spun on her heel and walked smartly away.

Rother turned to Mercy and mouthed the words, “Challis? Dead?”

“Damn,” cursed Coral. “The bastards are dying off faster than we can kill them.”

CHAPTER 44 : Slo-mo

“Does it feel weird to you?” Mercy asked Rother, blinking against the autumnal sunlight slanting in through the front windows of their Valencia Street apartment.

“Does what?”

“Just … everything. The way everything slowed down after Elfin and the others died.”

The contrast felt huge to Mercy. She thought back to that handful of days when all hell seemed to have broken loose – the car chases, the kidnapping, Kane invading Rother’s mind and all the rest. Then she tried to compare it with this September morning when they were still only half-dressed, sitting at their living room table drinking tea and reading The Chronicle.

“If you mean does it feel like we’re living in slomo, then yes,” replied Rother. “If you mean do I mind, then no. I could get used to this again.”

“It’s not real though, is it?”

“Real enough for me,” said Rother.

Despite some reluctance to engage with it, he knew what Mercy was driving at. When Elfin, Challis, Segarini and Albie Bach had died, his life with Mercy had returned to something resembling the normality they had previously enjoyed. The Hu Foundation still existed but, with Kintsugi and Kane in their ongoing state of co-existence, it seemed at least for the moment to be less of a threat. Nanovit was still recovering from the loss of Elfin and Challis, so their Viral Expedient project was in limbo. Kupferberg was still out there but he seemed to have retreated back inside the protective shell of The Tempel.

“Nothing was really resolved,” continued Mercy. “It’s all just simmering.”

When the couple had returned to Valencia Street, they had resumed, more or less, the life they had known, except that their spare room was now occupied by Coral. Smiddy had become a regular visitor and, although he and Coral were not formally an item, the pair spent much of their time in each other’s company.

Rother put his paper down on the table top and folded it over. “The way I see it, we were never going to be able to stop Nanovit, The Foundation or any other global conglomerate from developing intelligent vaccines, viruses or whatever else they think might earn them a few more billions. The best we could hope for was to eliminate any immediate threats to our existence, and we did that. Could you pass me the marmalade?”

Mercy pushed the jar across the table to him and laughed at his attempts to scoop out the last remaining smidgeon from the bottom. “I’ve never known anybody who could have as much trouble as you do getting their toast together in the morning.”

Coral quietly entered the room through the door directly behind Rother and winked a hello at Mercy.

“This bloody spoon’s too short,” complained Rother, affecting an exaggerated frown. Rising from the table, he turned and briefly acknowledged Coral, as he walked over to his jacket and extracted a slender sliver implement from a side pocket. He returned to the table with a triumphant look on his face.

“I’ve had this in my pocket for weeks,” he announced. “Found it on the road outside the Nanovit building. Still don’t know what it is, but it’ll be perfect for this.”

“We do have an actual marmalade spoon,” pointed out Mercy.

“But this …” he held it up for Mercy to admire, ” … is perfect, don’t you think?”

Mercy’s mouth contorted into an expression of dismay which she normally reserved for disobedient children. “You can’t just go using a spoon you picked up off the ground. You don’t know where it’s been. Put it in the dishwasher, set it on intensive.”

Rother ignored her and proceeded to demonstrate exactly how ideal the spoon was. “There,” he said, spreading the marmalade onto his cold toast. “That’s precisely the amount of thick cut I wanted.”

“It’s not right,” said Mercy.

“No, it’s just exactly right,” countered Rother.

“I mean it’s not true that we eliminated the immediate threats,” she stated. “Kupferberg is still out there. He’s still a danger to any vulnerable young person on the street, and he’s right here in our back yard.”

“Too true,” agreed Coral.

“Is that her?” asked Starkrost.

Kupferberg looked first at the integrated tele-link screen on his wrist and then closed his eyes. Next he raised his head, stared at the image of the young woman standing in the rain outside on his desk-top monitor and smiled. “Kristina,” he said. “My darling girl.”

She frowned and shook her head. “I told you never to call me your darling. Don’t you get it?”

“But you’re here, Kristina,” he said. “You’ve come here to see me.”

Her frown gouged deeper furrows into her cheeks as she stared back at him through the screen. “Yes, dad, that’s right. I’m at your front door and you’re not letting me in. I’ve been standing in the rain here ten minutes already and your door’s still shut.”

“Luci!” shouted Kupferberg. “Get that door opened immediately. Have someone bring my Kristina to me right away.”

Starkrost cursed under his breath. He’d been trying unsuccessfully for at least five minutes to get The One to respond to his calls. “It’s being done as we speak,” he assured Kupferberg.

“And get some drinks, and some food up here for us.” Turning back to the screen, Kupferberg was pleased to see that Kristina was already stepping through into The Tempel’s entrance hall.

“Come in, my darl… Kristina,” he said. “Someone will be with you in a second.”

Muting the connection, he sat back, closed his eyes and tried to remember the happiest times he had spent with her, but it was a struggle. He was first assailed by vague recollections of family get-togethers where Kristina had been relegated to the status of trophy child – a bow in her hair, a girlie little dress, shiny red shoes and an anxious smile worn to please whoever might be invited to adore her. There were stress-filled bed-times where Kristina took so long not going to sleep that she was handed over to one of the servants. In her early school years there were uncomfortable encounters with child development experts of all stripes where Kristina, if she was present at all, was nothing more than a problem to be solved.

Finally, Kupferberg dredged up a memory of one day in London when he and she had successfully endured an entire afternoon in each other’s company. Audrey had gone off on a clothes shopping spree in Knightsbridge, leaving them to their own devices, so Kupferberg took little Kristina to Hamley’s toy store. After buying her an oversized doll which not only talked but also cried and urinated, he had dragged the child along to a huge model railway exhibit where she passed a solid hour scolding her new toy while he drooled over scale models of classic American locomotives from Pennsylvania Railroad’s K4s Pacific to the Union Pacific Big Boy.

It wasn’t much but at least it allowed him to imagine that they had had good times together. Thus, when she and Starkrost walked into his presence, he was able to beam at Kristina with something resembling conviction.

She endured an uncomfortable hug for all of five seconds, before pulling away and asking, “So, dad, how’s it going?”

“Oh, don’t you fret about me, my lovely,” he replied. “I want to know everything you’ve been up to.”

“Since I was ten? Everything? Rehab? The abortion?”

“You were right,” laughed Starkrost. “Your girl has one hell of a sense of humour.”

Kristina rounded on the wilfully withered figure. “Don’t get me started on you Starkrost. I’ve had you researched. Let me see if I can remember the description I liked best. ‘Lucifer Starkrost looks like a shadow would look in a room with no lights, or on a world with no sun.'”

Starkrost appeared unconcerned. “I prefer to think of myself as unincorporated,” he said. “More concise, don’t you think?”

“Please,” pleaded Kupferberg. “I so hoped you two would get along. You have so much in common.”

“Such as?” demanded Kristina.

“Well…” Kupferberg had to think for a couple of slow heartbeats before he came up with, “Well, me, for starters.”

Kristina sniggered. “And you told him I had a hell of a sense of humour?”

“Maybe you two should just stop sparring and get to the point,” suggested Starkrost.

“What point would that be?” asked Kupferberg.

“Why a daughter who despises her father has come to see him for the first time in ten years?”

Kintsugi-Kane and Smiddy were already at the table Rother had reserved in Mission Street Burgers for their regular monthly get-together. The others piled in noisily and set about ordering drinks before the conversation turned, as it always did, to the state of play vis a vis the extraordinary events that had drawn them all together.

“Segarini, Albie Bach, Challis … all dead,” said Coral. “Elfin as good as dead. And you’re on our team, Kintsugi. I can’t get to grips with it all. There’s only Kupferberg and Starkrost still out there.”

“It’s not that simple,” pointed out Rother.

“It’s exactly that simple,” rejoined Coral. “If … when … we get rid of Kupferberg and Starkrost, that’s it. Job done. Game over.”

“No, Doogle’s right,” interrupted Mercy. “When they’re all eradicated, maybe our immediate threats are gone, sure, but the genie is out of the bottle. It’s not gonna go back in. You can’t uninvent the concept of intelligent viruses.” She turned to look at Kintsugi-Kane. ‘Present company excepted, we’ve no way of knowing that future intelligent viruses will be prepared to co-operate with humanity the way that you do, Kane. They might just see us as a species that has outlived its usefulness. Redundant.”

“Slow down,” said Kane. “You’re forgetting that I’m not just any old intelligent virus. It was only through a one in a billion accident that I evolved to become capable of merging with humans and communicating with them. I’m a freak, a one-off self-aware intelligent virus. It’s more likely that future intelligent viruses will simply do the job they’re designed to do – destroy potential pandemics before they can develop.”

“That’s debatable,” interrupted Rother. “You’ve already replicated yourself several times. You have the potential to go on doing that however often you’d like to.”

“So what would you have me do?” asked Kane. “End my own existence for the greater good?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying…”

“Actually,” pointed out Mercy, “that is what you’re saying.”

“Of course it is,” agreed Kane. “And it’s perfectly logical. I’d be prepared to do that. It makes sense.”

“No, no, no!” shouted Rother. “You’re my … well … you’re my friend.”

“And because I’m your friend I can’t make that sacrifice?”


The entire group fell silent until, unexpectedly, it was Smiddy who spoke up. “Listen to you all! You’re acting like a bunch of thirty-something Gretas.”

“What’s a Greta?” asked Coral.

“There’s only two really famous Gretas,” said Mercy. “Garbo and Thunberg.”

“Thunberg, obviously,” clarified Smiddy.

“Greta Thunberg?” asked Coral. “Who’s Greta Thunberg?”

Mercy chuckled sardonically. “You really must have lost track of the real world while you were with The Belonging.”

“For sure,” conceded Coral. “So who is she?”

“Swedish kid. Teenage climate activist,” explained Mercy. “Made a lot of people aware of what’s been happening to the world.”

“Exactly,” said Smiddy. “And you know how she was able to do that? How she was able to make a change in the world? Because she was too young to know she couldn’t. Unlike you. You’re all old enough to know better. And cynical enough.”

“So what are you saying?” asked Mercy. “We should just give up? Just roll over and let those global conglomerates fuck the world forever?”

Smiddy smiled disbelievingly. “How can such smart people be so dumb?” he asked. “All I’m saying is that you should focus on doing what you can. Change what’s in your power to change.”

“He’s right,” chimed in Coral. “I’ve never heard of Greta Thunberg, but I know exactly what he’s saying. We might not be able to change the world, but we can certainly do something about Kupferberg and Starkrost.”

Again the room fell silent while they all tried to come to terms with how best they might proceed. This time it was Rother who made the first attempt to move the conversation along. “So, what are we thinking?” he mused. “Invade the Tempel? Kidnap Kupferberg? String him up?”

“No, that’d just be a train wreck,” responded Mercy.

Coral’s hearty chuckle filled the room. “Funny you should say that,” she said, “because a train wreck is exactly what I was thinking.”

It seemed as if the rain had been falling all day. Kristina stood at a huge picture window and traced the path of one rivulet with a fingertip as it slithered down the outside of the glass.

“After we spoke the other day,” she began, “I got to thinking. I’ve been angry at you my whole life. Hated everything you represented. But now that mum’s gone it’s all changed, hasn’t it? You and I are all we have.”

Kupferberg had become so focussed on Kristina’s face that he failed to register Starkrost’s reaction – a slowly spreading, thin-lipped smile.

“You look so like her,” said Kupferberg.

Kristina wished she could simply ignore the remark, but her need to respond was irresistible. She turned away from the rain to face him. “I didn’t come here to rekindle your disgusting, juvenile infatuations.”

“But you do look like her,” insisted Kupferberg. “It’s just a fact.”

“Maybe it’s a fact,” argued Kristina, “but it’s not ‘just’ a fact. It scares me that when I come here, hoping to rebuild some kind of relationship, the first thing you think about is my appearance. In particular, my appearance compared to Audrey’s. It’s creepy. What about my legs? My tits? Are they as ‘good’ as Audrey’s?”

“You can’t think that,” stated Kupferberg. “You just can’t.”

“Why not?” she shot back. “It’s true, isn’t it? That’s how you think. It’s how you’ve always thought.”

Her words had disturbed her father’s equilibrium enormously, not so much because he knew she was right, but because she knew she was right. Kupferberg had spent years convinced that his lust-filled degeneracies were his own hidden secret, buried deep, but clearly she knew.

“Thirteen,” she said. “Fourteen. That’s what you prefer. It didn’t take too much searching to find your police records. You’re right there on the registers.”

“To be fair,” interrupted Starkrost, “your father was never actually convicted of any of that.”

“You’ve never heard of enhanced record checks? Never heard of soft intelligence?” asked Kristina. “It’s out there if you look hard enough.”

“Keep out of this, Luci,” warned Kupferberg. “This is between Kristina and me.”

Without another word, Starkrost nodded slightly in acknowledgment, and left the room. Again, Kupferberg had no way of knowing that his Comms Controller was smiling as he went.

When the door closed, Kupferberg walked over to a cabinet behind the big table and took out two squat glasses plus a half-empty bottle of Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon. “This is the ten year,” he said holding the bottle up for Kristina to see.

“Knock yourself out, Dad,” she replied. “I don’t drink. Five years on the wagon. If you really knew anything about me …”

“I’d know that,” he acknowledged, setting the glasses on the table and pouring a large one for himself. “But I don’t, do I?”

“You don’t know anything about me,” she continued. “Nothing of any significance.”

He took his first sip of Eagle Rare, rolled it around in his mouth, and played the only card he felt he had left in his hand. “Nothing. You’re right. Nothing except that you’re my daughter.” He was sure he detected a flicker of something, some kind of recognition, in her eyes. “And, as you said, you and I are all we have.”

The sound of the rain outside, battering on the window, was the only thing that broke the silence in the room. Kristina looked out into the gloom of the evening and briefly wondered if the rain might help dampen down any of the nearest wildfires.

“Where’s the Wind Wolves Preserve from here?” she asked.

“What?” asked Kupferberg.

“The Wind Wolves Preserve,” she repeated. “There’s been big wildfires around there.”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” he said. “That’s down near Bakersfield, maybe 300 miles away.”

“Don’t tell me not to worry about wildfires,” she replied. “They’re your fault. It’s your generation that’s fucked up this world, but it’s us who’ll have to live with it.”

“I see,” said Kupferberg. “So everything’s my fault. It’s not just that that I’ve been a shit parent?”

“I didn’t say that,” disagreed Kristina. “I said your generation. What’s a Wind Wolf anyway?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Kupferberg. “Never heard of them.”

“But you’ve heard of the Wind Wolves Preserve.”

“Come on, Kristina, we’re drifting away from the point of all of this,” stated Kupferberg.

“Which is?”

“At the end of our conversation a couple of days back, I thought I’d probably never hear from you again…”

“You wish,” she said.

“But here you are. So what’s brought you here?”

Kristina took a deep breath, but continued to stare out into the darkness beyond the window. “I haven’t come here to …. all I want is in.”

“In?” queried Kupferberg. “In what?”

“It’s what I said before. You and I are all we have now. Since Mum died I’ve realised that you’re all I’ve got left in this world. I don’t like it, but it’s the truth. What do I want? I just want to be in your life. That’s it. That’s all.”

Kupferberg really did not understand what she was saying. He lacked the emotional qualities which would have let him understand her rationale, but he thought he knew what he should do next. He put down his glass, walked round the table and sat beside her, feeling awkward. “Welcome home,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders.

They sat together watching the rain for several minutes, while Kristina sobbed quietly. Eventually, she pulled away and said, “Thanks, Dad. That’s all I want. I’ve got to go now, but I’ll be back,” she promised.

Still not sure what was happening, Kupferberg watched as she walked away. “So long,” he said. “See you soon?”

Kristina did not look back at him but, as she opened the door, she mumbled, “Yeah. OK. Soon.” Then she was gone, leaving her father in the half-light.

As she approached the main door, she passed Starkrost. “I don’t think he suspects a thing,” she whispered.

“Good work,” he whispered back.

Stepping out into the rain and closing the door at her back, Kristina felt her communicator vibrate. She took a couple of steps away from The Tempel entrance and took the call. “Coral?” she asked. “I’m in.”

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