George shared scraps of stale fish with a scrawny cat prowling the boat’s deck, an orange tabby like Lucky’s. Livingstone had moved to New Hampshire with his owner and a second cat from the local shelter that Charlie gave his sister on her birthday.
“Thanks Charlie,” she had said dubiously, “for Layla. Harry’s not a big fan of cats.”
“You can return her,” her brother said.
“Can I return you?”
Saying goodbye to Charlie in Athens seemed long ago. Now, next to him, Campbell also sat shackled, moaning, drifting in and out of consciousness and fretting about his “concussion.”
George pulled a tarp over him to prevent more sunburn and handed him his half-full plastic water bottle, crinkled by repeated use.
“No.” Campbell pushed it away. “This will make me sicker.”
“But you need to drink!”
“I don’t want food poisoning, Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi belly.”
“George,” he added, “my skin… looks like Warhol’s Campbell tomato soup can.
“What happened after they knocked me out?”
“Dr. Campbell, they …killed everyone.”
“What! Where are we?”
“I don’t know. We came on a helicopter.”
Campbell looked at the blue ocean ripples sparkling endless suns and squinted. “A skilled pilot had to drop us on this boat.
“Everyone else is dead, George?
“They made sure of it like something I saw in one of my uncle’s paintings…”
“My Uncle Max is an artist,” George explained, “There’s a little sketch in their home, my aunt’s face in a hand mirror, purple grapes and fresh flowers.”
“Well,” George continued, demonstrating with his long hands, “that picture became part of the background in a life-size portrait of this beautiful woman. But this time, the mirror was shattered, the flowers were wilted, no grapes, just brown twigs.
“And then around it, my uncle painted bursts of color just like those bullets splattered blood on the sand.
“Over and over. I feel ….” His voice trailed off. Male voices were yelling.
“What’s that?” Campbell said. “They didn’t go to the trouble of bringing us here to kill us.”
“They had me carry you. Maybe, that’s the only reason I’m here.”
A new man now approached them. In his 30s, Middle Eastern or Egyptian, groomed beard, he felt Campbell’s forehead and pulse.
“Here boy,” he said in accented English, handing George an IV bag and then sticking a needle into Campbell’s arm. “Now hold those fluids up.”
I’m not “boy.”
George did not smile, not wanting to be like his aunt who smiled when Mrs. Sichet was snubbing her. He held the bag as high as possible.
“You got it,” the medic next said. “Now help me move him. His sunburn will get a lot worse before it gets better.
“Both of you are going back to Saburia. They paid your ransom.”
They were transferred to a smaller boat and then blindfolded. The motor revved up.
Campbell asked George, “You doing OK?’
“Yes, Dr. Campbell, this is not right, being alive when those others are dead.”
“Life’s not fair, George.”
The medic snorted his agreement. A plane roared above.
“It seems you’ve got a friend in the sky — so no point in these,” the medic said, taking off their blindfolds. “Watchers are everywhere, including thousands of satellites joining the moon above.”
On the shore, the medic said, “Boy, squeeze that bag of fluid to finish it.”
He returned George’s Genie. “It needs charging, Dr. Campbell, they couldn’t find your phone. Weird.
“Good luck, nice to meet you both, your people should be here soon.”
Alone on the windblown beach, Campbell and George watched the medic and his boat disappear.
“You know Dr. Campbell, we never even knew his name,” George said. “But now that we’re safe, we can bomb the heck out of them.”
“The medic is just a middleman,” Campbell said. “He must have waited until our kidnappers were safe somewhere before he released us.
“Still,” Campbell added, “given the politics around here, this looks like terrorism, not just about ransom money, someone’s stirring the pot.”
They heard its welcome hum even before the horizon spit up a Humvee to take them back to the base. Inside the vehicle, George ate goat meat on bread while Campbell slugged down water, after removing the needle from his arm and slapping on a Band-Aid.
“I love the crack of the cap as I open a new water bottle so I know it’s safe to drink,” Campbell said. “I hope you don’t get sick from eating and drinking on that boat.”
They were taken to the base clinic where Elise Sheraton met them.
“You’re a hot mess,” she told Campbell. A nurse slathered cream and laid gauze on his sunburn as he lay on the gurney.
George charged his cellphone and connected to the WiFi to catch up with his friends.
Michaela said she was no longer holed up in her room. “That’s all I did for days after you and Charlie left, on my computer, on my phone and listening to music. Mom’s been working long hours. I just fixed spaghetti for dinner.”
George remembered his time at their small dinner table under a tired ceiling fixture where half the bulbs were burned out.
“We don’t need so much light,” her mom had said.
“She means we’re poor,” Michaela clarified, picking the pepper container off the tablecloth to reveal a hole. “See, we cover it up and we don’t have to buy a new one.”
“It’s your grandmother’s…” her mother protested. “I’m going to mend that.”
Trying to live with them wouldn’t have worked. They didn’t have space. The one bath had chipping tile and dim light. Michaela’s mom bought toiletries in bulk when they were on sale, randomly heaped inside a large bucket in the corner.
Michaela sent a video of herself watching the California sunset at one of their favorite haunts, the wrought iron fire escape of her apartment building. Sleeves pulled down to her fingertips, hair blowing against a stiff faraway breeze, she hugged herself and drank her favorite diet soda.
George scrolled through more pictures on his phone. Charlie’s were stunning, his advanced phone camera also showed 3-D videos; Athens, Delphi, crumbling stones of the Acropolis, the Parthenon lit up in gold at night, endless pictures of the city’s markets, locals at different times of day and night and selfies from an Athenian restaurant that showed them before large plates of dolmades, lamb and colorful green salads sprinkled with feta.
George responded to the group chat. “Hi, I’m here in Saburia.” Memories of the nightmare trip were not for sharing with his friends.
He went to check on Campbell. “I’m still going back with you to the States, Dr. Campbell, and then back to Pandolf.”
“That’s between you and your father. He’s on his way here.”
Elise then returned.
“We’re all in shock about the men who died,” she said, “heartbreaking, ‘slaughtered like goats’ is the local expression.”
“Horrible,” Campbell agreed, “and my story is like one of those spams that says a friend is in remote Africa with no money or papers and to wire his bank account.”
Elise looked at him. “Is that your concussion talking?
“Anyway, David, Mary’s coming back soon from New York.”
“You think she’ll make it through another round of treatment?” he asked.
“We’ve ideas about making her infusions less toxic. Still, Mary knows there’s always the chance of dying here in Saburia. She said something to that effect…”
“Before she left Saburia in June,” Elise said, “she and I talked about whether she should return here instead of just staying near her family.
“And she said, ‘Temitope, Elise, is a Nigerian word for thanks and gratitude. Every day I’m happy in my life just the way it is.’
“So David, I’ve decided to do that also — to make me a happier person.”
On his phone, George was no longer paying attention.
“Your kids doing well?” Campbell asked.
“Yes,” Elise said, smiling. “I’m going back to the States to spend Thanksgiving with them and not coming back until after the New Year.”
“What’s AJ going to do without you?”
Before she could reply, a tearful Manny Garcia rushed in.
George got up and awkwardly accepted his father’s bear hug.
Arm around his son who was now as tall as him, Garcia then turned to Campbell, “So glad to see you again, David. Thank you for bringing George back safely.”
Campbell nodded. “Yeah. That was some trip, Manny, and it’s so good to see you again too.”
After Garcia and George left, Campbell received another visitor.
“Your friend’s here,” Elise said into his ear before walking away. He opened his eyes.
It was Yi, the pilot.
“Oh, man, it’s good to see you. Thanks for your help,” Campbell said.
“I wish I could have done more.”
“Sorry,” Campbell said, “so many troops were killed.”
“That’s hard on everyone here,” Yi said. “Soldiers expect danger. We were prepared for Somali pirates kidnapping people for ransom. When the Saburian terrorists struck, it was not expected.
“How are you?”
“Lucky to be alive except for a nasty headache. I was knocked out before the shooting.”
“Shall I ask them for pain medicine?”
“No. Tell me how you found us.”
After listening, Campbell said, “They’re right about how good a pilot you are. You know I once wanted to become an astronaut.”
“Me too!” Li said, “…able to leap through lightyears of space and across galaxies.”
“Your doctor said to keep my visit short,” Li said. “I don’t think she likes me, David, not sure why — I’m always nice to her.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing you did to her.”
“Women can blow hot and cold,” Li grumbled.
Elise had once called Li a “sexist jerk.” He was glad that she was not listening.
“Anyway, I’ll be back tomorrow,” the pilot said.
After the pilot left, he watched for Garcia’s return. He needed to ask the scientist about the two biomatrix beads when no one was listening, in person or electronically.
Kochanski had told him that the beads were for the cancer vaccines. He didn’t believe it. Kochanski was a habitual liar.
“Truth is a matter of perspective,” Kochanski had also once said. “It’s one reason why I drink. David, you’re too serious.”
The doorway remained empty and he finally closed his eyes. Daydreaming in grade school, or confined because he hadn’t done his homework and lost his recess, he used to gaze out of dusty classroom windows and dream of becoming an astronaut. As the whoops of children on the playground faded,he joined otherworldly creatures in his imagination.
There was the humanoid friend, X, out of whose forehead Campbell scooped a purple elixir that tasted like ice cream and gave him superpowers of vision. Then he could see that in the constellations hung edifices of ancient civilizations that had destroyed themselves. He explored their giant ghost webs among stars and planets, mining secrets from eons past.
There were many pearly planets and even people who looked like him but were unlike him. The Earth he knew came from a blueprint, a system designed to evolve life forms that expired with the planet, planned obsolescence, but there were so many others like it, life systems spawned by an unknown civilization. And there were all these beings of awareness like him, wandering like lost dogs, searching for meaning and their beloved master.
“As a kid in grade school, I was star-hopping all over the Milky Way and beyond instead of studying,” he once told Garcia.
“And I was always the good student who studied hard. I even won a national science prize in high school in Buenos Aires,” Garcia reminisced proudly. “Now, I want to understand how threads of DNA can program life forms. Our gene-editing technology is primitive. That’s how cancer stays ahead of our treatments by evolving to survive. But like viral pandemics, the plague of cancer is a guide to greater wisdom.
“Only artificial intelligence can beat that biological speed. Mary’s cancer is no longer the same; it keeps leaping ahead of responding to the vaccines we give her.
“Still…,” he added, winking at David, “I’ve got a bit of imagination myself. I’ll die one day and before then, I hope to find a spider in our world’s web…if it’s still alive.”
“I mean I want to know the ‘why’ of life. Like you, David, I also wanted to explore space as a kid — glimpse eternity, the why, where we come from, where we are going — before my lights shut off.
“For sure I’ll die one day, unplugged from the universe. I can’t dance and dangle forever among the stars. Breaking and reshaping DNA, that may be my way to shout out ‘hey there!’ to a spider in the web that feels my vibration. If it’s alive, it’ll come looking. David, star-hopper, grasshopper, if that happens, you’re also an insect tangled in the web with me.”
“That is fantastical. How am I trapped in this web with you?”
“You’re part of my research team.”
“OK, I’ll go along with your speculations. If you see this spider, this source that’s spinning the fabric of our world, creating and destroying from cosmic to cellular, molecular to subatomic, how will you even know what it is?
“Is your spider benevolent, malevolent or indifferent?”
He remembered the purple elixir from his imaginary friend that gave him vision-power to open his eyes to unseen marvels.
Or is the web the spider?
He opened his eyes to a nurse in white.
“Dr. Sheraton insists you need to rest.”
Obediently, he swallowed two more snowy pills.
Alone in Elise’s office, George talked with his father.
“George,” Garcia said, “I understand that Pandolf is a better school, and you don’t want to go to Chicago. But I have to stay here in Saburia. I don’t know how you can live in Pandolf by yourself.”
“Dr. Narayan still hasn’t found someone to share her apartment.”
“I’ve imposed on her enough.”
“She likes me,” George insisted. “I’ll be careful not to eat all her food again. It’s not good anyway, all ‘healthy’ and tasteless.”
“I’d be surprised if Dr. Narayan agrees. Then your aunt has already enrolled you in the Chicago school. Now, where’s that academic calendar she sent me?”
Garcia now searched for his phone. Impatiently, George rattled off the start dates for the school in Chicago — “it’s already started but Pandolf High won’t begin until next month.”
They connected over video-feed with Shelly. “George, I was waiting to hear from you. Glad you arrived safely.”
Garcia broached her about George returning to Pandolf.
“It’s been lonely since Lucky left,” Shelly said. “Financially, someone to share the rent would be helpful. George, you were flourishing at school here. I want to help. But work keeps me very busy. Manny — she no longer called him Dr. Garcia — for all practical purposes, George will be on his own.”
“I’m surprised you’re even considering doing this, thank you,” Garcia said. “George will get a car when he turns sixteen so he can drive himself around — like for all those dentist appointments. His teeth are a mess.
“If things aren’t working out, George, you’ll need to go back to Chicago,” his father warned.
Shelly added thoughtfully. “We’ll have to have some ground rules, George,” and laid down curfews and rules for neatness, sharing food and the bathroom.
“Well enough of that,” she said, “Manny, how’s your research coming along?”
His face broke into a big smile. “I have an update since the last time we talked. Our patient, Mary, is returning. Her indicators are encouraging like she hasn’t lost any more weight.”
“Oh, Manny, that is exciting. When can I discuss my project with you? We can collaborate informally.”
“You mean that I won’t be a co-author on your publication in The New England Journal?”
“Uhmm,” George interrupted them. “Sorry I’m still exhausted from the trip and would like to eat and go to bed.”
Heading to the clinic exit, Garcia and George walked past a sleeping Campbell, covered with burn cream, gauze and a sleeping mask.
“George,” his father said, “It looks like it’ll be awhile before Dr. Campbell can travel back to the States with you. I guess the California school dates do work out better.”
From her desk, Elise waved goodbye. “Remember, Manny; I’m leaving tomorrow after AJ returns. Have things ready for Mary.”
Garcia waved back. “Yes … I do find all these schedules chaotic. I’m so glad that you and Mary are taking a helicopter from Ramses — that sounds safer.”
At the exit station, father and son rubbed in sunscreen and sanitizer. Sunglasses and hats were next. Outside, late afternoon salt-laden sea breezes buffered the heat as they walked back to the apartment.
“Dr. Sheraton is a pediatrician by training,” Garcia said. “If the queen of Saburia gets pregnant soon, Dr. Sheraton will move to Ramses to help take care of her baby.”
“Have you visited the capital, Dad?”
Garcia shook his head. ” I’ve only been to the airport. My focus is cancer research here.”
“Mary is your patient? You’re going to cure her?”
Garcia smiled. “Maybe. I wish you could meet her.”
“No offense, Dad. I just really want to go back to Pandolf.”
“I’ll miss you . I wish I could have protected you better during your trip here.”
“Don’t feel bad, Dad. Dr. Campbell was great. He said something about me seeing the school counselor about my trip here. What would she understand?”
“Yes,” Garcia agreed. “You and I, we have lived in a different space, a different time than most people back in the States. Jorge, you and I may have an indigenous American back in our family tree, but we’re still unlikely to be your counselor’s type of American, whatever that may be.”
George’s adolescence was taking predictable flight. Except there was a new cutting edge in his son’s attitude.
From his messy trails to the grumpy attitude after sleeping in all morning, how long would Shelly put up with his son?
Back at the concrete block Saburian housing, Garcia swiped his entry card and sighed.
“What?” George asked, “You’re getting old Dad; you sound out of breath.”
“I’m fine,” Garcia said. “I just have a lot of work ahead to prepare for Mary.”
George was back on his phone during his microwave dinner. Garcia mulled his regrets.
If it wasn’t for the Purple project, there was no reason to be secretive with Samuel Nepski about the oncology research.
When the international medical clinic chain had come to him with technical questions about developing an AI assisted cancer vaccine program, they had then sent him de-identified terminal patient data files for the Drukker.
He had been in a dark place with his career already spiraling downward, no longer seeing a beacon in his dreams for the future.
But if he had been candid with Nepski, he may not have lost his job. The review board would have approved the project.
Instead, he went down a slippery slope and agreed to help the king of Saburia — AI assisted genetic engineering — and create designer babies for Queen Noru.
Pandolf High lectured its teenagers about unintended consequences. His only regret — really — turned out to be not a better father.
“Jorge,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
George looked up. “Thanks Dad.”
Light ahead, that stubborn flicker of hope ablaze again, yes, his son was OK and Mary was no longer terminally ill. The research for the king’s Purple Project – the twin babies — was in his rear-view mirror and once again, he would focus on immune cancer vaccines.
NEW YORK CITY
Mary enjoyed a farewell dinner at her daughter’s home. There was no evidence of cancer on her latest scan.
After putting the kids to bed, Leslie returned to Bart and her mother in the living room. Her husband looked relieved. Mary forced a smile to wish him goodnight.
“Mom, I wish I could talk you out of returning to Saburia.”
“I know. But if my cancer came back, I would feel like it was a mistake not to go.”
“It’s a shame they can’t do your treatments in New York.”
“Leslie, Dr. Bains is right that there has to be some regulation of experimental medical treatments in our country. Desperate people like me are an easy target for hucksters. It’s just that I’ve exhausted all my options here and don’t mind being a guinea pig.
“Dr. Bains also said that even if they allowed my treatments in the United States, it would be prohibitively expensive for the average person. Insurance can’t be covering every Tom, Dick and Harry that hawks a cure.”
“It’s so nice that you have Dr. Bains,” Leslie said. “I haven’t seen my MD in years, and the last time, she mostly looked at her computer and I was in and out in 5 minutes. I’m sure she has no idea who I am. Now I just see her assistant and get my refills.”
“Honey, that’s not right.”
“Anyway, you need to go to bed.”
The next morning, Leslie drove her to the airport and took her to the boarding area in a wheelchair.
“I’ll be back,” she reassured her daughter in a goodbye hug.
Elise also called her to wish her a safe trip to Ramses. “You sure about this?”
“Africa is in my heart.”
“After I meet you in Ramses,” Elise said, “ we’ll take the helicopter this time to the base. In the future, we may move treatments to Ramses.”
In Ramses Hospital, waiting for Mary’s plane to arrive, Elise slept on a cool cot inside a physician call room in the women’s section.
The alarm went off. It was time to meet the Indian OB who had just arrived. Meeting Elise for the first time, a warm smile broke open Dr. Seema Kapoor’s round brown face, lighting her kohl-lined eyes.
“I guess we women are in similar situations,” Seema said at dinner. “We’re going to be living here and working with families back home to support. Electronic communication is so wonderful. Being able to talk to my kids over video is not the same but it’s still better than a hundred years ago when all we had was letters. But not very private, agreed?”
“Yes,” Elise said. “Still, I have no dark secrets.”
“It’s not about finding out our secrets,” the OB said. “When people know everything about you, your family, your medical files, the old knee injury that keeps you from running, your weaknesses, your strengths, where you’re coming and going — they can control you better.”
Immediately after dinner, she called Kochanski about the conversation.
“What’s going on? I didn’t want to ask her to explain.”
“I have been meaning to tell you,” he said, “not only is Soria’s cancer vaccine project definitely moving to Ramses but also, Queen Noru is pregnant and will be returning from India.”
“Why am I the last to know?”
“Sorry,” Kochanski said, “but the time had to be right. All our conversations are possibly being monitored. ‘Hi there’ — by the way — to whoever is listening right now.”
“Probably a ‘bot,’ Michael, you’re not that important.”
“I can understand why people in the US go ‘off the grid,” she said. “Until now, I always lived in places I could easily connect with my kids and travel to see them. But you know, cars have license plates, airline traffic is monitored, if I wanted to unplug for complete privacy…”
“I’ve seen it in the movie,” Kochanski interrupted, “The Matrix.”
She had just received a response to her inquiry about a clinic opening in a small Missouri town starting the following year. A medical recruiter had originally e-mailed her.
The Ozark Mountains had a lingering appeal after a visit many years ago with her former husband and small children. The job even provided housing that was remote enough to use well water, solar power and a generator.
After breakfast the next morning, Seema said, “Let’s walk in the garden. I’m trying to learn about the flora and fauna here in Saburia. Tell me, have you seen any of those beautiful desert Lie-umas?”
“Yes, I’ve seen lyumas,” Elise said, pronouncing the word the Saburian way.
“Lyumas,” Elise told Seema, “are more beautiful in person than in the pictures. I hope the king can keep them from going extinct.”
“Hmmm,” Seema said.
Elise was going to tell Seema more about the king’s efforts to protect endangered species in Saburia but stopped. Maybe she doesn’t care.
AJ., who was Indian-American, had once observed to Elise, “The problem with Indians, you know, is many of us go along and accept things as fated and find joy in release from material attachments. I love that in America, we try to change destiny.
“It’s like in physics,” he explained, “which tells us that a particle can exist simultaneously in different states, locations and times. On a macro scale, there may be different pasts, presents and futures. In some parallel worlds, Saburia and it’s problems may not even exist.”
Looking away, Seema said softly, “Two embryos were selected and transferred into Queen Noru. Only one survived. I didn’t want to say that inside if someone was listening.”
Later in the doctors’ lounge, Elise tried to nap. The phone rang.
“Hey!” Kochanski said.
“Michael!” It felt good to hear his deep voice. “When are you returning?”
“Can’t, I’m still trying to tie up loose business ends, turning over one of my buildings to new management. I need some ‘born-in-America’ advice from you.”
“Well, I have this Pierre Building, and we are trying to get it into the black. My new manager wants to get rid of my chapel, which I’m sentimentally attached to because I named it after my mother. ‘Prime RSF,’ Rentable Square Feet, she says and how we can’t tie the space up like this.”
“Michael,” Elise said, “I’m not a business person, but in America, chapels are in hospitals and private schools, not in commercial buildings. But why new management? They sound very controlling.”
“Money, of course” he replied. “My mortgage was going underwater, and the bank would have taken it over otherwise. Frankly, I’m making this new deal to take care of my daughter.”
“How old is she now?”
“Old enough to be taking care of herself,” Elise said.
“No, Katya’s gorgeous and adventurous, like her mother used to be, and she doesn’t make the best choices like either of her parents at her age. I’m waiting for her to do more growing up.
Kochanski now changed the subject, “On another note, I’m drinking less.”
“My new lender knows me a little too well. He’s a Jim Sichet. You’ve never heard of him. But in Chicago, many people know him. Anyway, he told me to ‘get the monkey off my back,’ one of your American expressions about drinking.”
“Well, I’m feeling healthier, Elise, and have even lost about five pounds. Now tell me about the projects. Manny emailed me that Mary’s doctor in New York City said that her cancer is in remission.”
“Yes. She’s on her way here now.”
In a guarded voice, she added, “I just had a good talk with Noru’s OB.”
Kochanski was silent. Why? Or was it the connection or someone listening?
When she heard his voice again, he was finishing a sentence.
“Sorry, what did you just say?” she asked.
“I heard that George is returning to Pandolf with David when he flies back to San Francisco. I need to go but one last thing, the best part, Elise.”
“George is no longer in my budget. Do you have any idea how much he and his friends eat?”