CHAPTER 47 : People Get Ready
Kristina examined the handset closely. “So that button shuts the doors, and that one locks them?”
Delivery of the remote handset was the final stage of two intense weeks spent modifying and preparing the Union Pacific M-10000 streamliner, which had lain abandoned for decades at the southern end of the long, straight line on Port Cullis Island.
“That’s what I’ve been told,” confirmed Smiddy. “I’ve used the guy who designed it several times on previous jobs, and he’s 100% reliable.”
Coral leaned up against Kristina and nudged her gently in the ribs. “I can’t believe we’ve managed all this,” she said, looking up at the loco. “Fourteen days.”
“Teamwork,” said Smiddy. “The perfect combination of my connections, Kristina’s money and your relentless …” He stopped to think of a noun.
“Relentlessness,” suggested Coral.
Yeah. That’ll do.”
For a machine which had lain unused for over forty years, the M-10000 had survived in remarkably good condition. Coral, Smiddy and Kristina were all captivated by its elegant lines, and its lively colour scheme of Armour Yellow sides complementing its Leaf Brown nose.
“If I didn’t know better,” said Smiddy, “I’d think it was built to fly.”
“It does look like a plane,” agreed Coral. “Maybe we should have added wings.”
Kristina pressed the first button and the loco door slammed shut. “And what about the extra distillate storage tanks?” she asked as she pressed the second button and felt a shiver of excitement as she heard the lock click firmly into place.
“We only need one tank,” explained Smiddy. “It’s a thousand litre Uni Tank, right there in the baggage compartment,” he pointed towards the rear of the loco’s power car, “immediately behind the turret cab. It’s rigged to blow when the loco hits the buffers in the tunnel entrance.”
Kristina, however, wanted even more details. “So if the impact doesn’t kill them …”
“It will kill them. Instantly,” asserted Smiddy. “And, in the unlikely event that it doesn’t, the explosion will incinerate them within seconds. They won’t know a thing about it.”
“Damn,” said Kristina. “I was hoping they’d suffer.”
Smiddy was disturbed by Kristina’s chilly malevolence but Coral understood it perfectly well. “They’ll suffer along the way,” she suggested, “once they realise they’ve got one way tickets.”
Kristina smiled at Coral and nodded, but said not a word.
“I always forget,” said Rother, “that you get such a great view of the Coit Tower from here.”
Kintsugi-Kane, coffee cup in hand, crossed the Hu Foundation boardroom to stand beside him at the window. “You know, I don’t think I appreciated this view as much before I was joined by Kane. Maybe I was too wrapped up in Foundation business.”
“Maybe?” asked Rother. ‘Believe me you’re a different man since you and Kane got together.”
“Two different men,” laughed Kintsugi-Kane.
In the days since Kane had transferred from Rother to Kintsugi, so much had taken place that Rother had difficulty remembering it all. He still had a problem dealing with the two voices Kintsugi-Kane was now using for communication. It felt, at times, almost as if he was speaking with someone suffering from a split personality. It was only because he could clearly remember how he had felt when he shared his mind with Kane that he was able to rationalise it.
“And I like both of you,” said Rother.
“It took a while,” pointed out Kane. “Didn’t it?”
“To settle in?” asked Kintsugi. “It certainly did, but once we started to get the hang of each other, it kind of made sense. We just fitted.”
As the new head of Hu Foundation Cogent, Kintsugi-Kane had worked tirelessly to navigate the complex streams of negotiations which were, slowly but surely, turning the organisation away from The Acceleration Project and related intelligent virus research towards more traditional medical endeavours.
“As far as I can tell,” said Rother, “you two have fitted together better than I managed.”
“We probably didn’t have long enough to adjust to each other,” suggested Kane. “And those were, let’s say, hectic times.”
“He still misses you,” said Kintsugi. “I don’t know how often he’s used the phrases ‘Rother used to say,’ or ‘the way Rother used to do that was…'”
“Oh, come on,” disagreed Kane. “Probably just a couple of times…”
Rother smiled at his own reflection in the window. “You’re like an old married couple,” he said. “We never got like that, I don’t think.”
For a few silent moments, they stared up at the Coit Tower, surrounded by the trees of Pioneer Park, before Kintsugi asked, “How long have you lived here, Rother?”
“Since I was a teenager. Why?”
“Have you ever been inside Coit Tower?”
“That’s embarrassing,” admitted Rother. “No, I haven’t. I keep meaning to go, but I never get round to it.”
“You know about the murals?”
“Well, I’ve seen pictures of them. They’re beautiful. Some Mexican artist?”
“No, the guys in charge were Americans,” corrected Kintsugi, going on to explain that for many years some of the murals had been deliberately hidden from public view because of their clearly socialist leanings. “They were also hidden because they depicted people of ‘colour’ working alongside ‘white’ people. It was felt that San Franciscans of the 1930s shouldn’t be allowed to see such incendiary works.”
“Really?” asked Rother. “Good grief. I had no idea.”
“We should all go,” said Kintsugi. “It’s always worth reminding ourselves that, not so long ago, racism was not only culturally acceptable but consciously supported by the political elite. And yet …”
Rother jumped in, “… yet here we are accepting that humans and artificially created intelligent viruses can live together harmoniously.”
“No,” Kane admonished him. “I think you’ll find Kintsugi was about to say that here we are still hiding the likes of me from public view.”
The sun rose the next morning into a perfectly clear blue sky over Valencia Street.
Rother stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, still feeling an urge to check whether anything was emerging from his face, but resisting it.
“You going to make breakfast on this fabulous morning?” called Mercy. “Or is it me today.”
Rother made a face at himself, rolling his eyes up. “You know perfectly well that it’s you.”
“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” she shouted back.
By the time Rother emerged, Mercy was pouring their first black coffees of the morning. “I see in The Chronicle that the Foundation is moving ahead with another bunch of HuNu products. They’re launching Hu4EA at the start of next week, and then the Dr. Hu range before the end of the month.”
Rother snorted. “I’ve got to have a word with Kintsugi-Kane about that. Those Hu puns are definitely being overdone. I keep waiting for them to invent a baby-oriented range called HuLuvsia.”
When he settled at the table, Mercy asked, “Do you still miss him?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “How weird is that? Drove me mad when he was in here with me, but now …”
“Come on. By the end you were loving it,” laughed Mercy. “You twohad the giant economy size bromance going on.”
“Yeah, OK. But I still get to hang with him when I’m around Kintsugi.”
“I sometimes think you’re jealous of Kintsugi,” said Mercy, taking his hand across the table.
“It’s just … I still can’t quite believe that it all happened.”
“I don’t think any of us can,” she agreed. “And I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not all over.”
It was a topic to which they returned every day. Coral had been right to get them to focus on the individuals, but all of the group knew that as long as Nanovit, The Hu Foundation and other organisations of their stripe continued to exist, the threat of artificially-created intelligent viruses was far from ended.
“We didn’t even eradicate all of the prime movers,” reflected Rother. “Kupferberg and his creepy sidekick are still out there.”
“And still pursuing their claim to a controlling percentage of Nanovit,” pointed out Mercy.
Rother looked around the room. “And speaking of Kupferberg, still no sign of his No1 enemy?”
Coral had been absent from the apartment for several days. “Nope,” confirmed Mercy. “Nothing. She’s still messaging me every day, but there’s never much detail. Says she’s working on some sort of project with Smiddy. This place feels kind of quiet without her.”
“It’s like me and Kane,” said Rother. “Can’t live with, can’t live without.”
“You just get used to people, don’t you? Coral’s crazy, but I like a bit of crazy from time to time.”
The two of them sat together in silence at the table for a few moments, enjoying the quiet, watching the world go by their windows, until Rother eventually said, “How long’s it been now?”
“More than a week,” reckoned Mercy, looking directly into his eyes.
“Should we be worried?”
“OK, Dad,” instructed Kristina, “you can take the mask off now.”
“I don’t know that I want to,” answered Kupferberg. “The mystery of all this has been so fucking intoxicating. I know we’re on an island, maybe Angel Island, judging by the length of time we spent on the boat.”
“What about me,” interjected Starkrost. “Can I take mine off? I swear I won’t give it away. I won’t spoil his birthday surprise.”
“It’s not Angel Island, dad,” said Kristina, giggling nervously. “And yes, Starkrost, you can take your mask off if you promise not to spill anything before Dad takes his off.”
“It was less than an hour,” mused Kupferberg, “and yet it’s not Angel Island?”
“Absolutely not,” laughed Kristina, delighted by how well her subterfuge had worked.
Starkrost, having lowered his mask, found himself unable to remain silent. “You’re gonna love this,” he said. “Absolutely gonna be your best birthday ever.”
At this, Kupferberg tore off his mask and, overcome by the sight that greeted his eyes, let out a huge gasp of amazement. “That’s a … it’s a … this is an M-10000,” he breathed. “I don’t believe it.” He immediately began striding towards the engine, but came to a dead stop when he heard the engine roar into life followed a moment later by the evocative blast of its whistle.
“That’s what I call perfect timing,” he enthused. “How in hell did you get this organised?”
“Didn’t have to organise anything,” claimed Kristina. “It’s been sitting here untouched for decades. We just, um, tidied it up a bit round the edges.”
Kupferberg started walking again. “You know,” he lied, “I was wondering how I was going to make my big five-oh birthday special, but this beats anything I imagined.”
“On you go, Dad,” shouted Kristina. “She’s ready to roll.”
Starkrost was immediately behind Kupferberg when he arrived at the foot of the short ladder leading up to the cab door. He turned and looked back at Kristina. “So where are we?”
“It’s called Port Cullis Island,” she yelled back. “There’s a leaflet in the cab with all the info.” The anticipation was building inside of her with every passing second.
“Aren’t you coming on board?” called Kupferberg.
“I’ll be right behind you,” she declared. “I just want to shoot some video of you guys climbing in first.”
“So I can just go in?”
“Yup. If I can be forgiven for paraphrasing Curtis Mayfield,” she responded, “‘You don’t need no ticket, you just climb on board’.”
The men clambered up the steps, stepped into the cab and turned round to enable Kristina to video them. To their surprise, Kristina was approaching the loco with a video-game remote control handset held out in front of her where they had expected to see a mobile phone.
Running up to take their places beside her were Coral and Smiddy.
“What’s Smiddy doing here?” asked Starkrost.
“And isn’t that Leda?” wondered Kupferberg. “What’s going on, Kristina?”
The answer wasn’t long in coming. The threesome started waving goodbye and Kristina hit a button on the remote, at which the door slammed solidly shut.
“What the fuck?” yelled Kupferberg.
Starkrost was the first of the pair to realise that the inside of the door lacked a handle. “How do we open this thing?”
Kristina’s voice, relayed by radio to a speaker in the cab, told him. “You don’t.” Now she hit another button and the M-10000’s engine kicked the loco slowly forward.
“Pull the window down,” Kuperferberg ordered Starkrost. The realisation of what was happening was hitting both men like a jackhammer blow.
“It won’t move,” Starkrost shouted back. “It won’t fucking budge an inch.”
Already the engine was picking up momentum. Kristina and the others were running alongside, waving and laughing. Kupferberg spun and crossed the cabin to get to the controls, only to find that everything was frozen. “Nothing works,” he shrieked. “Smash the window…”
As the M-10000 gathered speed, they realised there was nothing in the cab with which they could even attempt to shatter the window. Starkrost battered vainly at it with his balled fists.
Kristina’s voice, however, rang out loud and clear over the speaker as she gleefully told them, “You’ve got about two miles of track to go before you enter the cave at the far end. Shouldn’t take much more than a couple of minutes. Less than a hundred yards into the cave you’ll smash into the buffers which were placed there when the tunnel was abandoned. If the impact doesn’t kill you the explosion we’ve rigged up will.”
Starkrost, with his face now pressed up against the window, watched as Kristina, Coral and Smiddy receded from view. In his last glimpse of them, it appeared to him that they were dancing in a euphoric circle.
“They’re fucking dancing,” he shouted to Kupferberg. Barely two minutes later the dancing trio came to a clumsy stop as they caught sight of the flash of the distillate igniting, and then heard the sound of the explosion.
“That’s from mum and me,” said Kristina, blowing a kiss into the air. “Happy birthday, Dad.”
THANKS AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS : Carol Black, Steve Davies, Tandy Davies, Stephen Pile, Dave Watterson, Jan Watterson, Sylvie Simmons.