Saburian Air Force Base, Africa
“Dr. Garcia’s son in the United States is doing online searches into teenage runaways.”
The base CTO added, “Mr. Kochanski, we keep tabs on him. But I’m not authorized to speak to his father.”
“Yes,” Kochanski said. “Our cancer patient is doing bad, now on dialysis. Dr. Garcia can’t have any distractions from work. I’ll handle it. June, school’s out, lots of free time for young men to make trouble.”
Kochanski winked at the officer.
The Saburian grinned. “Safe travels tomorrow.”
Now alone, Kochanski hummed, “Georgie Georgie Pudding Pie, ba-dum-dum-dumb…”
When he used to remote-parent his daughter at George’s age. Katya had been in the safety of a British boarding school. Still, on holiday, she also found misadventure.
The next morning, Kochanski rode inside a new armored Humvee to the Ramses airport. Security had been upgraded recently after Somalian pirates had attempted a kidnapping near the beach.
The proud teenage driver demonstrated features of the vehicle to the other young troops. English words like “transmission” popped up. The AC was off. With long rifles poking through the roof opening, the Saburians lit forbidden cigarettes and played local music.
Seeing his longing look — again attempting to quit smoking—they passed him a cigarette. He inhaled gratefully. Fingers no longer fidgeting, he ran through cash flow numbers mentally to figure out his next loan repayment.
The Pierre Building was supposed to be the cornerstone of his future American business empire. But even with the money stream from the king, the mortgage was going underwater.
Ever since he was a kid in the local crime gang, younger than his driver now, luck always came when he prayed. Dear God. He had named the property after Saint Peter. Inside, he dedicated a chapel to his mother, all his way of thanking God for helping someone as broken as him.
The “highly recommended” Chicago architect had been skeptical. “A chapel in a commercial building…hmmm, I don’t know.”
“You mean it’s supposed to be the other way around,” he had joked. But that architect had no sense of humor.
The Humvee speeded over bumps and around corners. The young Saburians laughed with delight.
How old were these kids when they were recruited? Certainly older than twelve, when I joined the local gang.
Where is the exit door from this heavy burden of life if not death?
The Drukker plane was a direct flight. After all his drinks onboard, Kochanski landed in Chicago in a blur and during the car ride, fell asleep in the back seat, missing his usual exhilaration at seeing the skyline fronting Lake Michigan.
After thanking the driver — what kind of accent was that, also a 100% tip may be too generous for helping carry up his suitcase, Kochanski crashed on the living room couch of his condo.
A headache woke him up that afternoon. He changed out of his suit, swallowed Tylenol and antacids and picked up his phone.
“Fresh-squeezed orange juice, three please,” he ordered, along with his favorite deep-dish pizza, “God, I missed it.”
After the meal, he walked outside. While his current condo’s address was respectable, someday, he wished he could afford to live in his own property. Oscar Sanchez used to have a small room in the basement in the Pierre with just a frig and microwave. The boy used the toilet on the main floor and the shower at a nearby homeless shelter.
With the summer light dimming into the evening, swift winds blew off Lake Michigan and rushed down the streets between the skyscrapers. Escaping their rough howl, Kochanski stepped into the Pierre and headed to the chapel.
Thanks to the sound engineer, it was quiet inside the sanctuary. Just a little color from the sunset seeped into the windows. Shadows grew longer. Another few hours would pass before his hangover and jet lag would abate, so he pulled a red cushion under his head and fell asleep on a pew.
When he awoke, he wasn’t alone. A nearby window illuminated a gentle smile on a round face. Not an angel, he looked into the bluest eyes he knew.
“Hello, Michael,” said Jim Sichet.
How did the fixer know where to find him?
Kochanski sat up. “Well, what do you want?”
“To help you. Your financial troubles aren’t a big secret.”
“What do you know? Don’t give me crap.”
Sichet paused. “What do I know? Philosophically a loaded question but practically, I know that this building is having cash flow problems. Isn’t that why you came back?”
“Jim, you’re so full of it. But there’s something else that you do know about.”
You know about Oscar, how he died.
He searched the lawyer’s face.
Sichet’s expression was blank. “I simply know that people are waiting for this building to go underwater and the fire sale to buy it.”
Underwater like how Oscar drowned.
Kochanski raised his voice indignantly. “So a client shared confidential information with you about my building?”
Sichet looked around. “That’s one guess. Knowledge is power, Michael. No one can hide any more by putting a shell around their real identity and pretending to be someone else…”
So you know.
It had been Oscar that the federal agents had been looking for. To deliver a bribe to a judge, Oscar had entered a court building with a fake ID, a driver’s license with Garcia’s name that Kochanski had given him.
“Alright, go on,” Kochanski muttered. He had been in Saburia at the time, unable to give Oscar better instructions. Garcia was then wrongly detained on suspicion of involvement in a graft scheme.
“Like if I saw a therapist,” Sichet said, “I wouldn’t let her keep records. Her electronic notes could go up into a Cloud for everyone to see.”
No more therapists for me.
Still, to be fair, he knew about Sichet’s medications from the techies on the Saburian base who hacked the lawyer’s electronic health record.
“So, Michael, I’ll help you,” Sichet continued. “You have a lovely daughter. She has a great life in London. You don’t want her to default on her condo. She worries about that on her blog.”
“Katya has a blog.”
“Yes, she wants to write professionally someday, she says in her ‘About Me’ section. I’m sure that getting a degree in Russian literature will help…” The lawyer’s voice now had a wry edge.
“Not a practical choice,” Kochanski admitted. “But she doesn’t ask me for career advice.”
“Hmmm,” Sichet said. “Being creative in a conformist world is a good way to be poor. Still, she’s pretty. She could find a sugar daddy if you can’t support her.”
The streetlight through the stained glass awoke a memory of the old Warsaw church that his mother used to attend with Katya as a child, his daughter’s favorite skirt with the gauze edge and faded leggings, mud and dog hair washed out dozens of times. At Sunday services, she kicked up her tan boots that he had spent all his savings on.
Keep Katya in the light. Now he was the older boy in a story his daughter had told him, who protected children from falling off a cliff while they played in a field of tall American corn.
Turning to Sichet, he asked softly, “So what do you want?”
“A little preface, Michael. I’m not a religious man,” Sichet said, waving his hand around the sanctuary. ”But I am aligned with a certain philosophy. It says that our world will come to an apocalyptic end. No, not like in the movies, burnt to a nuclear crisp or frozen solid. That would just be too easy.
“Catastrophic things can happen. An asteroid ended the dinosaur age. But I think environmental change is more likely. Humanity will die a slow death after most other life has gone extinct and good riddance to most of us.
“ If we’re lucky, some of us will survive and need leaders to rebuild our society, hopefully a better one with a lot fewer people. This planet needs less than one percent of its current human population — and a better balance with nature.
“I’m going to tell you something, Michael. The Saburian government has given me permission. They are a client of my law firm. The king belongs to an ancient order with beliefs like mine. We connected as kids in the same boarding school.”
“You know the king of Saburia?” Kochanski said after a stunned silence. “From school? Now he knows that we’re meeting?”
Sichet nodded, “Yes, Michael. I also know about Garcia’s detention. That was quite the interruption to the king’s plans. Good thing that Talwar took care of his release. The king’s paying Talwar’s bill, isn’t he? And you’re taking the credit.”
Kochanski looked away and nodded faintly.
“Michael,” Sichet continued, “On your end, you need to make sure Garcia’s kid is OK. Because we don’t want our brilliant scientist to have to worry about anything besides the projects in Saburia. So here’s my generous proposal. I’ll help you with your bank loan for this building.
“I’ll have someone — she’s the best — step in to run the place instead of you. Why should you have to worry anymore about the Pierre’s day-to-day business? Beth will double the income from your property, and you’ll have more free time for work-life balance.”
Did Sichet mean money laundering?
Cautiously, he said, “I’m interested in learning more, Jim.”
“Yes indeed, Michael.
“More tomorrow.” Sichet rose to leave. “Do you need a ride, Michael? You don’t look well, haven’t seemed healthy for some time. Have you thought about AA?”
“That’s my business. I’ll walk home thanks, ” Kochanski said. “What should I do about my meeting with the bank tomorrow morning?”
“Don’t bother. Beth’s going to be transitioning into the manager role. She’ll talk to them.
“What other choice do you have, Michael? Just one, that the bank will foreclose. But before you agree on anything, I’ll send my proposal to Talwar. She’s good. I offered her a job once. But she turned me down. Sad.”
He added, “Michael, I know you don’t trust me so let me explain something. One thing they don’t make more of is land.”
“The land.” Sichet raised one palm skyward, “On our overcrowded planet, you can only go up, up, up…” Flipping his palm down, he added, “Or down. Someone once said that the tallest trees have the deepest roots. Or off-site — meaning space travel.
He shrugged. “Anyway, Michael, how about dinner tomorrow evening?
“Too bad there’s no restaurant on your property. What a location it could be for a Chicago watering hole! We definitely have all the animals. I’ll text you.”
Without waiting for a reply, Sichet walked down the aisle to the red Exit sign.
Kochanski prayed some more after Sichet left. Then he returned home using shortcuts through alleys and left a voicemail with the bank to cancel their meeting.
“Please contact Beth…,” he finished his message by reading off the contact information on the card that Sichet had given him.
The bank would not foreclose on him if there was any chance that Sichet would rescue their loan. The details were a problem for tomorrow for Talwar.
A quick grateful prayer said — again with the Father’s help — he had dodged the crushing wheels of disaster and would sleep well.
The next morning, enjoying a late breakfast in bed, Kochanski opened an email from Talwar. She said that they needed to talk about the particulars of “your new contract.”
Another email from Campbell detailed the scientist’s job offer to be CTO at the Dock, Drukker headquarters.
“I’m a-going home…someone sent me a letter.” A whistling sound-moji followed and a link to some American song.
Song playing in the background, the letter continued: “Drukker is now solidly under the umbrella of Zoser, a stable parent company with leadership that aligns with my values. Michael, I’m done with being a little independent consultant.
“The traveling is too much. Now I’ll commute to San Francisco from my home in Texas. International travel will only be to places where I don’t have to worry about the safety of the food, the water or my person.
“Saburia’s a beautiful country. Maybe I’ll visit again someday as a tourist with the wife and kids.
“But no worries, I’ll personally bring George to visit Manny in Saburia and then return the boy to his relatives in Chicago. Drukker has a fleet of immigration lawyers. Their informal advice is that we can make it happen for George to stay in the USA.
“Manny’s working 24/7, just stopping to sleep, talking to Elise about how to make Mary’s next immune infusion less toxic. A second treatment won’t happen on this trip sadly, because the old lady’s still on dialysis. But her spirits are Texan :)”
After the song ended, he replied: “David, congratulations!! I always support the success of people I work with. Glad you looked into George’s status. Disrupting so young a life…”
He stopped typing, click, cut, delete, no messy confession to Campbell about young lives disrupted, from Oscar’s to their own.
Instead, he wrote, “I have a good attorney here in Chicago for George. She handled Manny’s release.”
The Green Genie flickered as it rang. After George spoke with Talwar, sleep vanished.
June was almost over, and summer classes were not starting for another week. He leaped out of bed to the living room to celebrate: Chocolate Cookie Dream cereal poured into their biggest mixing bowl along with Shelly’s organic grass-fed 2% milk, marshmallows and rainbow sprinkles.
Charlie emerged from his bedroom.
“Your phone woke me up!” he grumbled.
“Sorry,” George muttered, eating, still looking at his phone.
‘Why so happy? Did the Genie just grant you a wish, Aladdin?”
“It was my dad’s lawyer in Chicago. She says I can stay in the US — even come back— if I go to see Dad in Saburia. But I’ll only go for a short visit, also not till summer school’s over.”
“It’s so great that Dr. Campbell extended our lease,” Charlie said. “Africa sounds amazing. I guess you could go right before school starts again in September. Hopefully, you’ll get to return to Pandolf in the fall.”
“Shelly will need a roommate now that your sister’s moving out,” George said.
Mouth open, Charlie stared at him. “Are you kidding? Did Shelly suggest that you live with her?”
“No, of course not.”
George continued, “But Michaela’s place is too small for another person. I’ll have to figure something out. I have to convince Dad to let me stay here. That’ll be easier to do when I see him in person.
“Also, some of his experiments require me to go to Africa.”
“Well, since I moved from Paris, every few months, Dad uses my blood for DNA mapping. He says he’s too old to use his own. DNA defects develop as time goes by.”
“Cool,” Charlie said. “Like he’s not going to clone you or anything?”
“Oh no,” George shook his head. “It’s just genetic analysis and then 3-D putting me together on the computer. Eventually, he says I’ll be a 4-D prototype of the chromosome building blocks of a human being. Three dimensions are the DNA helix, and the fourth dimension is how it changes with time. Like a video that shows how a baby becomes an old person.”
“Huh?” Charlie looked alarmed. “Wait, don’t finish that whole box of cereal, save me some. And let me take a pic of your bowl with all the sprinkles, yes, every single one that Michaela bought for baking cookies.”
Charlie pulled out his Genie and swiftly moved out of George’s way after taking a photo.
“Michaela wanted to celebrate our break before summer classes started. I’m going to send her a pic.”
“No!” George exclaimed, trying to grab Charlie’s phone. “Now Michaela will be mad at me.”
Charlie laughed. “It’s OK. I’ll text her to pick up some more sprinkles. I’m not a fan of rainbow colors anyway. I think red, white and blue for July 4th would be appropriate, given that we’ll be taking American Government.”
After summer school started, intense discussions about politics flared late into the night. Their other class, Financial Management, led to more practical talks as when Charlie explained to his friends about how trust funds passed wealth through generations in families like his.
“Unbelievable,” Michaela exclaimed. “So you never need to work?”
“I plan to work. Life’s not just about money.”
Creative theories about who really paid for George’s credit card also sprouted.
“Yeah,” he said one day with a glum look, “my PlasticPress expires August 31. Dad told me that the card doesn’t really belong to Dr Campbell either. Then, I’ll be on a monthly budget.”
Michaela now promptly left at 11 PM to avoid another confrontation with Shelly, who was doing random check-ins. For Drivers Ed, her mother cheerfully took all three teens for practice with her stick shift car. When the battery died, a tire went flat and the engine light went on, “car maintenance” became another new class.
July passed quickly. Summer school ended. Too soon came the hot day in August when Michaela sobbed her goodbye to a wet-eyed Charlie at San Francisco International Airport..
On the long flight, Charlie took a nap and woke saying he was “ready to finally see the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis and then we’ll go to the Delphi temple.”
Meeting them at the airport, Campbell looked into Charlie’s sparkling eyes and again saw Lucky.
If only, together just once more, she and he could hop, skip, jump — outside time. He would give her a starry necklace and ring to go with the skies in her eyes.
Campbell splurged, touring the best of the ancient city. The Athens trip finished too soon.
Charlie begged, “My parents said I could also go to Saburia with you guys. They said it’s safe. They even said I could miss another week of class, right George?”
Campbell smiled. “That’s not what your father told me.”
When a teenager’s lips are moving, he’s lying.
Who said that? Was it Kevin back at the ranch?
He didn’t even want to take George to the Saburian base. It didn’t feel secure, 24/7 electronic monitoring, inaudible, unseeable Big Brother, the young soldiers carrying gleaming new weapons and riding recently upgraded military vehicles.
They dropped Charlie off at Athens International Airport.
When they were alone, he told George, “You’ll be in Saburia for just three days to see your dad. We’ll be staying in the medical wing of a military base. Then I’ll take you to your aunt in Chicago.”
“I don’t want to go to Chicago.”
“Sorry, George, that’s not up to me. Still, for now, you’ll like the African countryside. It’s beautiful, wildlife most kids your age might never see. It may all disappear: elephants, wildebeest, zebras and the rare lyuma cat. In the night, the sounds call to you from far away in space and time. There are also endless skies with stars strung across like ….”
His eyes were far away, wherever Lucky was. He murmured, “…Infinite, eternal lights like jewels…”
On the plane between naps, George demonstrated his prodigious appetite, played games on his phone and grumbled that he wished he had someone to chat with about fantasy worlds.
“The lady asked what I wanted,” George told a surprised Campbell who sent a beer back.
In Ramses, the runaway’s shaded shelter was a little respite from the suffocating heat as they waited for their long ride to the base. Complaining about nausea, George whispered his indignance about cigarette fumes from the oblivious pilot smoking next to them.
Finally, a distant line of dust heralded the arrival of an armored truck. Campbell jumped up to hail it. Then, still wearing hats and sunglasses, their sunscreen washing off with their sweat, they boarded with their luggage.
The soldiers were surly. Less than an hour before reaching the base, Campbell was staring straight ahead while George sat behind him with the plane’s pilot — whom he had asked to not smoke — his fascinated eyes not leaving the side window.
“I can now see the ocean on the horizon.”
The driver cursed loudly at something in his rear-view mirror and camera screen. Campbell looked around. Far behind them, a line of chaos on the horizon was advancing quickly.
Their truck sped up, but those behind them soon closed in. Three camouflaged armored vehicles materialized, with mounted guns and men pointing more rifles into the sky. Moving them off the road, the attackers proceeded to surround them.
In the air, an armored helicopter approached. Campbell used the little Chinese he knew to yell above the din at the driver to stop, seeing no way around surrender.
Leaning forward, George whispered to him, “An apocalyptic death brigade like an online game gone real.”
Their truck’s brakes screeched. In its wake of dirt, their own Chinese and Saburian soldiers jumped out of the stopping vehicle to surround it, guns pointed, acting unafraid of death.
Campbell reached into his backpack for a small bag, engineered to reflect its surroundings and be almost invisible.
Grabbing a pad of Pandolf Inn paper, he wrote, “Dear Elise, from David with love.”
He shoved the slip of paper into the bag, then his phone and finally a chain he broke from around his neck, zipped it shut and tossed it onto a mound.
As commanded by their Saburian ranking officer, the soldiers dropped their rifles and put their hands up. The attackers approached them from their trucks, on foot now, dressed in various uniforms. But all wore caps and scarves wrapped around their lower faces. Each carried an assault rifle.
Campbell guessed that the leader was a local rebel but others were likely Somalian from further south on the coast, based on their skin coloring, features and broken Saburian.
He looked over at George who had pushed up his sunglasses, watching with shock, then dropped them back down.
“Good boy,” Campbell thought, “Cover your eyes. Now you can watch them. But they can’t exactly see what you’re looking at.”
One of the attackers reached George, snatched his sunglasses off and kicked him hard in the gut.
“Drop your weapons. Kneel with your hands up,” he screamed in Saburian, then Chinese.
A child soldier with large stony eyes in an unlined face, his cheeks still round with baby fat, now approached George on the ground. His light young body moved quickly at the command of the adults. He took George’s sunglasses and placed them incongruously on his small face. Their leader ruffled his hair affectionately and hurried him forward.
Campbell furtively looked around. What bad luck that overnight, they had traveled from dusty sites of conflicts millennia ago in Greece — to this place where boys George’s age were still warriors.
Hopefully, Elise would get the necklace with the biomatrix amber beads.
Their last conversation had hardly been romantic.
“After his affair with the officer’s wife,” she had complained about his friend, “he just gets a pass while the young woman goes back to China, maybe pregnant too. ‘By who?’ is the joke around here, or that she was lucky to not be Saburian because then she would have been stoned to death. Horrid.”
Now the attackers loomed around Campbell. The giant bowl of African blue sky over his head turned brilliant white as he felt the blow to the back of his head and then fell into black unconsciousness.
In a fraction of an hour after the ambush, the two COs on the Saburian base, Generals Shah and Li, arrived by helicopter. A trail of armored vehicles and soldiers followed, guided by an encrypted distress signal. The abandoned vehicle was still there, a ghostly witness surrounded by bloody carnage. There was no sign of the perpetrators.
The soldiers checked the bodies for life. A technician located David’s camouflaged bag. Li took it and handed off the phone. After removing the heavy gold necklace, he examined it in the palm of his hand. Between two amber beads, a medallion hung from a loop in the center.
The Saburian general looked at it. “The pendant shows the American state of Texas where Dr. Campbell is from. The note…”
Both generals started at the scrawl on the paper.
Finally Shah said, “English bad cursive, hard to read, I think Dr. Campbell means to give the necklace to his girlfriend — like he may not see her again!”
A soldier came up to them and saluted. “Sir, they only took the two Americans on the helicopter. All the other men are dead.”
Furious, Li turned to Shah. “Why?”
Shah was silent.
“Some of these attackers came by sea,” Shah finally said thoughtfully. “This spot is the closest it gets to the road. Except for the ones that left with the Americans on the copter, the rest can’t be far away. We’ll have to track them down. The problem is that the rebels recruit locals from the coast who know the caves and coves for hiding.”
“We’ve been trying to get your king to allow us to expand our naval presence,” Li said angrily. “This wouldn’t have happened if he had agreed.”
Speaking rapidly into his phone, Li hammered orders. To Shah, he said in Saburian, “My pilots are leaving now to search the beaches and ocean.”
The two COs shared a knowing glance about the head of the flight team, Chin Yi, notorious for the recent scandal, with his sunglasses, swagger and smile, and also a friend of Campbell.
While the convoy loaded bodies, abandoned items and the travelers’ ransacked suitcases, the helicopter flew back with its arguing passengers as Li continued his grumbling about the king’s weak defenses.
Back at the base, below the loud whop-whop of the helicopter, the Saburian general muttered so Li could not hear him. “Does he think our king does not suspect that the Chinese might be behind those terrorists? We don’t need more superpower protection — might as well become a colony again.”
The base manager, Shahrukh Salim, called Kochanski in Chicago with the news about the massacre and George and Campbell’s kidnapping.
He described the letter and the necklace. “We’ll give the jewelry to Dr. Sheraton as her boyfriend requested.”
Shaken, Kochanski doubted Salim’s confidence about a rescue. So Campbell and Elise were still keeping up their ruse of a romantic relationship, a nice trick on their watchers.
Salim next complained, “Our king is not going to be cowed and just give away our coast to foreign domination.”
“Arrogant imperialistic superpowers,” Kochanski agreed with Salim, “waging their proxy wars at the expense of good local patriots like you.”
“Please call your people and tell them what happened,” Salim finished.
In Chicago, Kochanski returned to watching Casablanca. He had seen it dozens of times. It helped him think. The necklace with the two amber beads had been recovered and would be returned to Elise. How to get the necklace to Garcia? Garcia needed those beads for the Purple project.
The king’s health minister had assured him that Queen Noru had agreed to these plans for her pregnancy as a “dutiful daughter in the royal tribe.”
“She’s eighteen years old..,” Kochanski had responded, remembering Katya at that age. “I mean, what does she know?”
A young Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca looked into the camera with the sparkling eyes of a woman who had served her man, his dreams and his vision.
“What do you know?” Kochanski yelled at the woman on the screen.
In Casablanca, the passports to freedom were hidden in plain sight. It was smart of Campell, he thought, to disguise the beads as a gift for Elise. Of course, Campbell was under the impression that they were for the cancer vaccine project.
Until Manny Garcia had told him that it was actually scientifically possible, Kochanski was skeptical of the king’s plan to repair his defective DNA after generations of inbreeding to have healthy babies with his youngest queen. Most of the royal pregnancies with his first two wives had been miscarriages, except for a disabled daughter followed by the Saburian crown prince — who Garcia suspected also carried genetic problems.
But the more he wondered, the possibility brought hope. Why shouldn’t the king change destiny for him and his people, even this ugly world? Or recreate Genghis Khan as the other parent for one of his twin children?
Even if the Chinese had given him the Genghis Khan relic as a gift, not a DNA source.
Back in Saburia, Garcia had rolled an amber bead between his fingers, telling Kochanski, “See this ancient drop of tree resin — the black specks inside are bits of an insect.
“Like Dro-soph-ila,” the scientist continued wistfully, “a fruit fly we use in the lab.”
Garcia’s expression then became wary. He tore off a sheet from a pad and wrote on it with a pencil:
“Writing to bypass 24/7 Big Brother. Noru has 23 beads like this to take to India, not amber but biomatrix with genetic material. Need two more stored in Chicago Cabinet 3, Bin 14.”
After Kochanski read it, Garcia thoroughly rubbed off the light markings and ran the paper through a shredder.
In a vault deep under the Pierre Building, Garcia had stored extracts from the king’s Genghis Khan relic. Cryopreserved specimens and other experimental materials in cabinets and freezers included blood and tissue specimens from his son since birth.
George Garcia’s chromosomes had been a base upon which his father had built the designer embryos for the Purple Project.
“Michael,” Garcia once told him in Chicago, “Health problems for George could predict similar issues for the twins as they get older. George’s genes are in the designer embryos, especially the Genghis Khan twin.
“Wherever pieces were missing for both embryos, I plugged in George’s genes. Say George develops a genetic disease in the future, for example schizophrenia. That’s important because then, the twins may also develop the same condition some day. “
In a fertility lab in India, a team of doctors and scientists had created designer embryos for transfer into Queen Noru. For the Purple project in which the king’s chromosomes had been repaired, several embryos had been manufactured in India — only two would be transferred, their selection based on Garcia’s analysis of the tissue in the two biomatrix beads that Campbell was carrying.
For the first embryo, the king’s repaired chromosomes would be injected into one of Noru’s eggs to fertilize it. That twin would become Noru’s and the king’s biological child.
But the second embryo was a revolutionary design by Garcia. For his coronation, the Chinese government had gifted King Mohammed with a relic from a tomb they claimed belonged to Genghis Khan, the Conqueror. Garcia had been able to extract genetic material from it. Using George’s DNA as scaffolding, Garcia had rebuilt 23 Khan chromosomes including the ancient conqueror’s single X chromosome.
In the second embryo, Noru’s chromosomes would be entirely removed from her egg to be replaced with the Khan artificial ones, 22 regular chromosomes and his rebuilt X sex chromosome. The king’s repaired chromosomes including his Y would then be injected into that egg.
The second twin would not be Noru’s biological child but instead — a son who was a combination of King Saburi and Genghis Khan, the Y chromosome coming from the Saburian king. Genetic engineering now allowed two men, centuries apart, to have a healthy baby together.
“Bending time, genetics have always been destiny,” Garcia had said. “This is just another quantum leap, like breaking the atom…”
Preparing for a dinner with Katya in Chicago, his daughter had asked her father to do the clasp on her mother’s silver necklace.
He remembered Irina as he brought the delicate chain around their daughter’s nape, the fuzzy skin below her hairline just like her mother’s. That was genetics too.
Katya had turned back to face him, arms folded, a sharp question. Confused, he didn’t remember her critical words, lost in astonishment at almost seeing his wife’s face again.
He fell into a dreamless sleep until his phone rang. Now it was a Chinese officer on the Saburian base.
“Salim said to call you with good news. Our ace pilot spotted a Somalian tin can, likely the kidnappers’, and we are working on figuring out its ownership and country of origin. It’s unmarked and now in international waters while our Navy tracks it.”
“Thank you, please keep me updated.”
Casablanca’s credits were rolling.
He reached for his phone, dreading making this call, picturing Elise inside her suite. She would be the one to have to go over in that dusty heat and tell Garcia about his son.
Distressed by his news, she appeared to understand that Campbell’s necklace was a delivery to Garcia.
For eavesdroppers, she even said, “That was so sweet of David to want me to have it.”
Oh my God, Elise thought after the video-call disconnected.
Garcia’s building was a block of efficient Western-style suites modeled on a motel development. She called for a car. But the Chinese driver, upset by the recent killings, had taken a day off for a “personal” emergency.”
Now, she needed to cover herself up the local way because the backup driver was Saburian. Feeling resentful, just like every day after her husband served her the divorce papers — why and how did life toss her into this horror — saving the emotional fallout for later, she entered the waiting car.
After a short drive, not enough time to compose what she would say, she tapped on Garcia’s door. Hair uncombed, beard unshaven, he appeared.
“Elise, news about George?” he asked eagerly, “I thought my son would be here by now.”
His suitcase was still open next to the bed, months after his arrival. But the rest of the studio looked neat.
“Let’s go to the common room with the AC first, Manny,” she said. “This heat is making it hard for me to breathe, especially wrapped up like a mummy.”
Garcia’s smile faded into a wary expression. They walked to the small meeting area with vending machines and a plastic table and chairs.
“I’m sorry, Manny.” She avoided his gaze. “George, David, their truck, they were all attacked on coming from the airport. Terrorists kidnapped them.
“The troops were all killed.”
Staring at the plastic table, she added, “ But Manny, we think George and David are still safe, being held for ransom. The Chinese military has done an amazing job of tracking them. Once we know the terms, what the kidnappers want, we’ll get them back safely.”
When she looked up, Garcia was slumped over. He shook his head. “I thought we don’t pay kidnappers.”
She shrugged, remembering something Campbell had once said. “Only if the media is involved or they’re playing political games. This is just a little bribe…”
“Elise, thanks for the hope,” Garcia said softly, “How do they expect me to work with my son in danger?”
He looked meaningfully at the walls.
“It’s okay,” Elise comforted him. “Michael says this is not something anyone wants to make political drama with. There’ll be a quick exchange of money, and then we’ll get David and George back safely.”
She squeezed his hand with encouragement.
“All those dead troops?” Garcia asked.
“Manny, I’ll tell you what I think,” Elise said, keeping her hand firmly on his. “There used to be a time when leaders led from ahead: their family, friends, community…but not any more.
“Now we are just pawns in big…bigger games. Science makes everything exponential, a matrix with expanding dimensions, pawns die, troops die, leaders fall, we pay the kidnappers off the official grid of course. We’ll get your son and David back.”
They agreed to meet later for a walk on the beach, the only place where they could speak freely. She brought Garcia a cold bottle of water and after a while, left him silent and alone.
That evening, with the shimmering, darkening ocean as a backdrop, they excitedly shared the good news that a deal had been struck.
Walking away from the base buildings, Elise pointed to David’s necklace that she was wearing. Garcia nodded.
“Manny,” she shouted above the thunder of the waves, “I know Mary’s cancer treatments are your fight for now. She was lucky to survive the first vaccine infusion and get well enough to return to New York last month. But a second round next month, so soon? She may be coming back to die.
“Still,” Elise yelled above the ocean, “I believe Mary when she says that if she doesn’t have much longer in this world, she wants to die here in Saburia. Or else, she wouldn’t come back. She doesn’t want her family to know how sick she is, says they have their own lives, and she isn’t needed anymore.”
“Mary’s body can’t handle the fight, and her mind is giving up? I don’t believe it.” Garcia shouted back.
Night had fallen. Up and down the beach, the line of lighted watchtowers gave no answers about George and Campbell, somewhere out there in the blackness of that violent ocean.
“Full disclosure, Manny,” Elise yelled. “ I’m here because I’ll get a hefty bonus if Queen Noru delivers a healthy baby per her king. I need the money. I have no retirement savings, a couple of kids who are still in school, an ex- who dumped me and reneges on his financial support. So don’t think too badly about me.
“These amber beads on the necklace have something to do with the queen’s pregnancy, don’t they, not the cancer vaccine?”
Garcia did not respond.
She brushed against him and said into his ear, “Michael was mysterious about them when I just talked to him, worried about who’s listening, but I got that I’m supposed to give you this necklace.
“Oh, don’t worry about getting your money,” Garcia said, his breath now warming her cheek. “You know how the people in the US think about us Latinos. I’ll work hard for seventy cents on the dollar.”
They had stopped now, cheek to cheek, mouth to ear. Elise said, “You mean like how women in America get paid less than men? Don’t you complain to me. I bet if I were a guy, I’d be running a hospital department back in the States.
“Manny, my only judge is my conscience. I hated my husband’s second wife until I went into therapy. Then I met Mary. She really helped me — pushing me finally out of my past and into the present, the future. So be hopeful, Manny, I’m sure George will be back safely.”
She slipped the necklace into Manny’s pocket. “Poor kid queen. Take the beads and help her.
“I’ll tell Michael that we talked and ‘all’s good,’ meaning he’ll know I gave you the goods.
“But Manny, you stay away from Salim. He’s a shrewd fellow. The less he knows — especially that you now have this necklace — the better.”
Back in his room. Garcia lay back in the recliner, looking out the glass doors at the unseen horizon dividing black endless ocean and deepest skies. Another world now filled his mind, fusing memory, time and space where he stood alone, a young man in front of a small home in Argentina where he had first lived after marrying.
Dozing, he dreamed that he was a young researcher again, biking to work along a busy highway in Baltimore with a backpack full of ideas for the NIH lab that would never reach their destination. Cars sped by him. It was too long a way for a bicycle to ever reach the distant NIH exit.
Awake and asleep, always looking for Pia, she was not here or there, not in the crowd, no longer in the places where they had spent so much time together.
Then one night in Bethesda, she came to him, drenched in the rain, young and lovely in her favorite flowered dress with its full skirt, her small naked feet splashing through the puddles. He was young again too.
They wrapped themselves up into each other, intimate in some room he only recognized in the dream’s moment, asking her to marry him.
George was legally and morally theirs, appearing often in his dreams, toddling by his side in a store or in the car with him and Pia as they drove on vacation to somewhere in Europe.
That day in Bethesda, he woke up to the unwanted knowledge of the passage of time, her absence and enormous relief they had wed before her death.
But this time he sat up, jolted out of a nightmare he did not remember except for its wrenching knowledge that their son had been kidnapped, somewhere, nowhere in the waters of East Africa and he must do something about it.
Until he saw George again at the intersection of a future time and space in this world’s matrix, he dared not yet believe that the kidnappers would return his son.