Singing in the Night
Pandolf Children’s Hospital required Noru to come — herself — to pick up her son. Ahmat’s drug screens had been negative. There was no evidence of physical abuse. Wide awake, the baby was entertaining the doctors and nurses with his confident smile and antics.
In the Emergency Room, Noru refused to allow her Pandolf psychiatrist to speak to anyone — the Saburian embassy in Chicago, her mother or Aisha. She also refused to speak to the social worker.
Noru also refused her own translator — not trusting her — and so an online translator was hired instead.
“Yes,” she told the psychiatrist through the new interpreter, “Michaela was babysitting and my son looked ill. She could not reach me. So she bought my baby here.”
Leaving the ER — covered head to toe in black— she haughtily swept past the stares, trailed by her retinue. One maid pushed a stroller with Ahmat.
Never again, she decided, would she see that gaunt Pandolf witch-doctor who was so rudely skeptical of the diplomatic lies that Sichet had advised her to tell the medical staff.
Never again was she, a queen, going to turn her psyche inside out for anyone for that matter.
Sichet advised Michaela to corroborate Noru’s story to the ER staff, who applauded Michaela’s good judgment for bringing the baby to the hospital after she was unable to reach his “mentally ill” twenty-year-old mother.
After it all, Noru thought she had achieved her goal. She was going to move immediately to Chicago and spend the remainder of her mourning period there close to the Saburian embassy and under Sichet’s watch.
In private, the minister conveyed King Malik’s shock about Noru’s poor judgment.
“So, I’m the mad queen now!” Noru retorted. “Why didn’t you do anything when I told you to tell the King that my baby, yes, his little brother, Prince Ahmat, was in danger? Has my child’s life become so cheap now — like that of a commoner? And what about my life?”
In January, the holiday lights were disappearing in Chicago. Noru had settled into her rooftop suite of the Pierre Building. Her English improved with hours of hard work — including practice with the charming companion that Sichet had assigned to her. Of all the Americans she had met, she enjoyed Callie’s company the most.
Although Callie was not beautiful in the Saburian way, some things are universal. Callie looked like a slender version of the “zaftig” European beauties she had just seen in a traveling exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute.
“No,” Callie told her with a smile, “no one uses that word anymore. The word is now ‘fat.’
Callie paused. “Actually, no, we just don’t talk about it. It’s considered rude in our culture.”
They were in the back of a limo, the baby in a car-seat between them, the new translator, a Saburian-American, now facing them.
“I was just thinking,” Noru observed, “that as women, we lose our shape and get old. Before me, my husband had two other wives, and that’s what happened to them. Do you worry about that, about no longer being young and beautiful someday?”
Callie gazed out the window at the Chicago Art Institute, listening to the interpreter translate the fast Saburian.
“No,” said Callie, “because my husband loves me. He could tell you more about those paintings. We came to the museum with our kids the other day.”
“Tell me about him.”
“Alex is an artist.”
“He makes paintings like that?”
“Yes. No. His art, oh Queen, is like fresh paint. But our world worships faded shadows — a glorious past, its colors running out. Time is on my husband’s side. For now, it’s just me who believes in him.”
Then Callie asked Noru, “Who do you feel loves you?”
The interpreter said, “Callie, ‘love’ is a hard word to translate.”
“My Aisha loves me,” replied Noru in English.
“That means that all the Saburian people love her,” explained the translator.
“I’m so sorry about the loss of your husband,” said Callie softly. “I believe in love because it is what finds you, what fills the empty spaces in life.”
The interpreter paused and then did her best.
Noru considered what she heard in Saburian and what she had heard in English. “Thank you,” she simply said.
The next week, in the Saburian embassy, Noru discussed her plans in a video call with a Saburian minister.
They were in a conference room with Sichet and the translator.
“Queen Noru” said Sichet, “your government has given me permission to petition for asylum here in the United States if you don’t wish to return to Saburia?”
“We are going home,” said Noru firmly, “to whatever awaits us. Peace has returned to my hometown. My brother died for that. My mother and the rest of my family are alive. I can return there.”
“You can return to your hometown,” said the minister. “But when your son is eight, he’ll go to StarHall like his father.”
“What about his safety? What about the bomb threat?”
“A rebel prank,” said the minister, stonily repeating the answer he gave her every time, “to destabilize our new regime. Of course, you and the prince will be even safer if you stay in Ramses, I mean until he is eight years old.”
Noru looked at Sichet for guidance. He nodded agreement.
“Our American government agrees that the bomb threat was a fake, Queen Noru,” said Sichet. “You’ll be safer in Ramses. And so will Prince Ahmat. When he’s eight years old and comes to StarHall, I’ll keep a watch on him and you’ll not have to worry about his safety.”
Noru smiled at her husband’s reassuring friend, thinking he was handsome and distinguished with his greying temples.
After the minister disconnected their video call, Noru said to Sichet, “My circumstances may change. What if something happens that my country no longer pays you? What will happen to Ahmat and me?”
“I’ll still work for you, always, Queen Noru. Your husband was my beloved friend. Your son will always be like my own.”
Noru looked around warily. “In our oldest houses, there are places where you can hide behind the walls to hear what people are saying.”
As she was getting up to leave, Sichet asked, “And how do you like the Chicago winter? What do you think about our Art Institute?”
“Callie made sure we were ‘layered up’ to walk along the lake,” Noru said. “Still, some stranger scolded us for not dressing up my son warmly enough.”
Sichet frowned. “That’s Callie’s job to prepare you and the prince for an outing in the snow. I’ll talk to her.”
“Please no,” said Noru. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. She did cut short our walk after that.”
Noru did not add that Callie’s mind often appeared to be elsewhere.
He laughed. “She wouldn’t listen to me anyway.”
After Noru left, he looked out the window at Lake Michigan. Only the translator was left in the room.
“Cute baby,” he said aloud to the wall. “But you know, usually the future belongs to the present’s bastards, turds, misfits, ugly ducklings…
“The prince doesn’t look like me. Or the child of my relationship with a beautiful young reflection of myself.
“Men can be narcissists in our professional lives too. We’d rather mentor the young that look like us.
“Except if we have a rescue fantasy about other races — inflating our egos at the expense of looking down on others.
“Men will serve a greater cause as long as it glorifies who we are.
“Will I be bigger and better than that?”
He turned around and smiled at the aghast interpreter. “Now dear, don’t go around translating that to our young queen.”
He looked at the wall again — and anyone listening behind it — nodded and walked out.
Later, Noru called Aisha from her suite in the Pierre.
Aisha advised her, “Next time, talk to your tour guide. Don’t tell that man that she works for about her deficiencies.
“As for when you return, Queen, you’re young. It’ll be good for you to live in Ramses. There’s more for you here in the capital than back in our town.
“Now that peace has been restored, you can still visit your family often. Your mother wants me to tell you that she agrees.”
A wheedling tone in Aisha’s voice told Noru this was a warning.
Did Aisha think, Noru wondered, that she would soon marry again? Remarried, in the capital, it would be easy to control her and Ahmat. Who was the man?
At the Marions’ home, Kochanski broke open a fortune cookie after another Chinese take-out dinner. It was Saturday evening.
“Look,” he said, laughing, “it says: ‘beware someone who brings you riches.’ I have to give Jim credit for our new royal tenants at the Pierre Building.”
Alex briefly smiled. Around his eyes, fine new wrinkles were developing. “I have to leave now,” he announced abruptly, “I’ve got a midnight deadline to finish a project for a client.”
Alex picked up his wine glass to put in the sink. Before exiting left like a husband in a play, he said, “”Thank you for coming, Michael. Before you leave, don’t forget to swing by and say goodbye.”
“So Callie,” Kochanski said after Alex was gone, “you’re still working for Jim, and Alex is now getting a new home studio.”
“Yes, Michael,” she said. “You know I’m still the Callie you know and love.”
She lowered her voice and added, “I’m not some succubus. So when I suggested to Jim that I might want to get married to him someday, he did not back off. He confessed that he too had feelings for me.
“He said that he had given up on the idea of a future in politics and that he would do that for me. So then, I had to tell him that actually I wouldn’t leave my family. My parents would never speak to me again.”
“He’s a lawyer… calling your bluff,” said Kochanski, “lying to you — testing you to see if you really meant it about getting married.”
“You think?” said Callie. “Oregon then.”
“Alex and I are looking at a job offer he got there. Run away? We would miss you, Michael.”
“Callie, just try breaking it off with Jim cleanly, tell him you’ve re-discovered your religion or your family values or something like that. If Alex then loses his job, then you can move.”
“What you said is true, about ‘something like that.’” Nodding in the direction of new smoky violet granite in her kitchen, she added, “I like beautiful things. Even if to you that just looks like another countertop and backsplash.”
She looked over at the renovated dining room and living room. “Why is it that the truth about good and bad first came to me in a package of lies and hypocrisy?
“No Michael,” Callie continued, “ I’m not going to blame my upbringing. Fact is that I always learn the hard way.
“It really wasn’t worth it, all this stuff we got from Jim. Still, Michael, I’m also no longer the person I used to be.
“I’m strong enough now to look Jim in the eye and have a heart-to-heart with him about parting ways except for any working relationship we could have in the future.”
“Honestly, Callie,” said Kochanski, feeling confused, “there will be no ‘working relationship’ with Jim if you break it off with him. He’ll quickly find someone else to do your job, all of it.
He heard himself pleading. “But you and Alex can fly on your own, right?”
She was quiet.
He felt angry. “Do you really want to make a change, Callie?”
If she liked beautiful things, Sichet was elevating her into a world where much was lovely, including Queen Noru.
His stubborn daughter had taught him to go into a waiting default mode with women when he didn’t understand or agree with them. With Callie, he would go along until the moment was right to advise her without wasting his time.
“If you stay with Jim,” he counseled her, “you need to plan for the day when your shelf life is up like setting up a bank account that he’s making regular deposits into. Maybe, Callie, if you truly do care about Jim, you should get something in writing that guarantees you will be allowed to attend his funeral someday because otherwise, Frances won’t let you.”
“Funeral, Michael?” exclaimed Callie. “Why so morbid?”
Now reaching over to touch his hand, she joked, “I’ll come to Jim’s funeral even from as far as Oregon. Michael, you know that sometimes you don’t make sense.
“What about you?” she added, “When are you going to see Elise? It will be the first time you visit her where she lives, and then you might be moving to the end of the world, to Endon, Missouri.”
“I’m waiting until the weather gets warmer,” he replied. “No, if anything, Elise will move to Chicago if we keep seeing each other. I can’t imagine living in the Ozarks.”
He got up to go.
“Michael, wait, go out the back,” she exclaimed, “remember that our front steps were just poured. Next time you come, you will see the children’s initials etched into the sides.”
“An artist’s children,” he observed.
Forgetting to say goodbye to Alex, he left. Outside, he then remembered and turned around. The Marions’ dark house now frowned back at him.
Icy tips of winter gusts quickened his choice. It wasn’t his place to tell her husband — tell Alex what? — when he actually did not know what was going on and had already tried to warn Callie about going down a dangerous road with Sichet. What more can one do?
Deep in Southern Missouri, Elise Sheraton was asleep in bed when she awoke abruptly. It was quiet and still. A faint tremor in the floorboards faded away. Getting up, she flicked on the lamp switch. It stayed dark.
“The grid here is crap,” she grumbled.
When she had asked Wayne Endon about the frequent power outages, he only said, “It’s a problem.”
She went to the window and looked at the town in the valley below — also black.
Her generator kicked in and her lamp turned on. In the distance, she saw other lights also come on. Many homes in Endon had backup power.
Some other flashes in the distance appeared to be fireworks. Why in February, she wondered? Endon was a strange town.
She laid back down in bed but couldn’t fall back asleep, thinking about her patient earlier that day.
The itinerant was carried in by Riverfox, the farmer that he worked for and two other men.
“He OD’ed again,” said Riverfox. Despite Narcan and her other interventions, he did not wake up.
Riverfox then sat next to his bed, his swarthy face burnt by the winter sun, lips sunk in where he was missing teeth, looking helpless.
She tapped into her computer to report her patient to a doctor in St.Louis for a telemedicine consultation. Now, she waited for a response.
Riverfox interrupted the silence. “Mind if I tell my boy one of the stories that I made up for around these parts?”
“Sure, if you think he can hear you,” she replied absently, catching up on updates about the chickenpox vaccine to distract herself from her fear that this young man would die.
She did not believe that Riverfox was his real name. Many locals had American Indian last names despite no physical features to indicate indigenous heritage.
“I’ll speak softly,” he said. “I know he’s deeper down there someplace more than just sleeping. Maybe he can still hear me.”
Riverfox picked up his guitar and began strumming, humming, and talking.
“There’s singing in the night. Young students sit around a firepit. Flames throw sparks into the night. Teacher is a bent old man working briskly in front of a blackboard.”
The farmer stretched out one hand, fingers now tracing lines into the air. Returning to the guitar, he twanged a few notes that lit the silence.
“Teacher’s chalk strikes the slate, writing firm and fast, flint on steel, white light glints and the children listen with upturned faces.
“The fire’s glow defies the blasted surroundings. Dust and ash cover the ground, dark lake less than half full, sad under a gray sky.”
The guitar now joined in a full-throated song as the farmer stopped speaking. His eyes were far away.
The riffs fading, Rivercrow began speaking again. “The teacher’s time to die is coming. He passes on what he remembers, letters, numbers, words and how things work, story and song.
“Out there in the night, there are ghosts, unknown sounds, but it’s usually just silence. Walking around, the teacher tells them what used to be in those broken buildings.
“Even in the day, there is little light. Blankets of dark clouds block sunlight.
“They live as scavengers, on tins and packages and bags of fluid in places like this one here, finding no other living, loving thing.”
The guitar began singing again, softly this time.
“Everyone is grateful it’s not cold anymore, or hot, just the same mild weather everyday, no rain, no snow, no sleet and no heat.
“Has time stopped? The teacher himself is lost, adrift, his own memory in a fog after explosions that went on endlessly.
“Tonight brings change, the wetness of air and soil as if seeds would germinate again in the ground. The children sense it, too, more cheerful than the teacher has seen them before, smiling, laughing, even before he finishes talking.
“The children sleep in the open, all together now with the teacher for protection. Oh, this wetness, this gentle sprinkle of fresh rain that promises life, it’s new.
“Has time started again? Is this a New World or the Old?
“When the boys and girls are asleep, the teacher stares into the embers. He feels hope for the first time in a long while; life begins again, again and forever, again.”
“It’s a song-story,” the farmer said.
“About death?” she asked.
“No. About life.” Riverfox looked with tears at the man on the bed.
A helicopter whirred nearby. Hearing it, Riverfox put away his guitar and held the unmoving young man’s hand. The medics arrived and the farmer gave one last squeeze.
She handed the pilot the clinic’s charge card. The man looked apologetic. “Sorry you have to pay first, but those are the rules.”
“I’ll drive up to St. Louis,” the farmer said. “But first, I got to go home and take care of a few things. We raise beef, and there are the dogs. The wife and son work other jobs, too, so I can’t ask them for too much help.”
“Why don’t you just sell the farm?” she suggested, watching the helicopter disappear. “It sounds like a lot of work especially the livestock.”
“The land is my blood,” the farmer said, sounding wounded.
The young man died before he arrived in St. Louis. Riverfox had been silent when she called him to let him know and then he sadly said, “I expected so.”
Shaken, her first patient fatality in many years, she had stayed up late that night and now couldn’t go back to sleep. Instead, she got up to check the valley for more lights. But the power grid stayed down. Finally, dawn rose, just a red line in the East, and she called the clinic on the satellite phone.
The night nurse answered. “We’re still on the generator.”
She turned on the news. The main channels had the usual stories: bloody foreign wars, government corruption and stagnation, and stories —from frightening to feel-good — about far-away people she did not know.
Then she tuned into the Endon local network. The earth’s globe turned on the screen, a view of blue waters and brown land. In the North American continent, Endon was marked with a black dot, and there were new black spots: Chicago, Pandolf and locations on both coasts. Muzak played a cheery series of tunes loosely based on popular American songs.
Feeling anxious, she tried to call her children, but the connection would not go through.
Then she called Wayne Endon at home.
“I can’t reach my kids. Is it because the power is still down?” she asked.
“I’m sure they’re fine but the world is not.” Endon’s face was pixelated on the screen.
“What do you mean?”
“The world’s dying out there.”
“Wayne, don’t get philosophical on me. Everything looks fine on the Internet and on the news.”
“It’s all fake, Elise. No one knows what is really happening.”
“What about all these new black dots on the globe on our local news channel?” she asked warily.
“You are looking at a closed-circuit news feed. Those are survival cells like ours that are now popping up everywhere around the world right now. When people come for us, for what we have here in our town, we’ll be ready for them.”
“I am driving up to St. Louis, Wayne. This is crazy. I need to talk to my family.”
“Come on into town first. But Elise, you shouldn’t go further than that. It won’t be safe right now.
“Or stay up there in the cabin. It’s isolated enough that you might be OK there too. You got power, water, food and supplies. There may be fighting in our town. If that happens, some of us may have to come up to your place to hide out.”
“I know you’re worried about your children,” Endon said. “You’re a mom. Elise, I can’t explain more now except that the final chapter isn’t written yet. I’ll meet you in the clinic later today if you wish to talk more. I’d like to do that — very much — in person.”
Without even a goodbye, the screen went black.
It was getting light outside. She absentmindedly opened tins of dog food to take to the barn. Did those animals really need so much to eat? She felt worried. What if there weren’t any more shipments of the crates from the pet food website?
That was a problem for tomorrow. For now, to top off the two large bowls, she poured heaps of kibble. Next she layered up to go outside where it was bitterly icy and cold. Should she put the chains back on the tires?
She grimaced. There was no choice but to make the trek into town. in the clinic, snow or not, power or not, people would still show up for their health problems. The clinic had enough fuel for the generators to last a long time. A warehouse next to her building stocked extra supplies. The main buildings in town also used solar, wind and hydropower.
Her children, Adam and Debbie, were all she could now think about. It was best to keep a packed suitcase in her car, ready to leave anytime. What about the animals, two dogs and two cats? She could not leave them here to starve and die in the winter.
But the Endons had taken good care of them and the property before she came and would continue to do so.
She opened the safe and removed her beat-up passport, birth certificate, Social Security card, gold bars — a gift from her father — and her old wedding ring.
She lifted one heavy ingot.
“How can a slab of gold so small weigh so much?” she had asked her mother as a child.
“Science, let’s figure that out,” replied her mother, opening a book.
Finally, she removed Garcia’s Drukker disc. A sliver of metal was taped on it with the file of Garcia’s letter to Campbell that she was supposed to deliver personally.
But her trip to see Queen Noru in Pandolf and meet David’s new girlfriend had been abruptly canceled when the queen moved to Chicago.
She tried to call her children again without success. Panic now ignited.
What kind of place was this anyway with a name like Endon? For that matter, she remembered the farmer yesterday. Rivercrow. The patient’s name was Youngblood. What kind of names were those when they did not even remotely look American Indian?
She turned to the television to turn it off. The globe still swirled, now showing Africa.
“Oh my God, that one’s smack dab in Saburia!” she exclaimed. The patch in East Africa, where humanity’s first tribes may have ventured out of, was the darkest on the rotating planet.
If she died in Endon, trapped in some apocalyptic commune, she wanted to read Garcia’s letter first. If the disc and letter were taken from her by the locals, she would then have some information to give to David, if she ever saw him again. So many ifs.
She placed the metal tab on her laptop viewer. Garcia’s smiling face now appeared on the screen.
“Hello, David,” said Garcia. “I’m so happy that Elise delivered this to you safely.”
She paused the message briefly, feeling guilty, then played it anyway.
“David,” Garcia continued, “If you see this, it’s likely either that I am dead or at least out of contact with you for the foreseeable future.
“David, I’m sorry I never told you about the Purple project, though you transported the disc to Saburia for Michael and me. It was for your own protection.”
Garcia described the secret project for King Mohammed and the result, Noru’s twin pregnancy. “The Indian doctors transferred two embryos into the queen, the Genghis Khan embryo and her actual biological child with the king.
“But only one child survived as Prince Ahmat. Which one? Royal sources say it’s ‘the half-breed’ who then cannot inherit the throne. But I’m not so sure. Perhaps they’re just trying to protect the child from the current regime that would see him otherwise as a possible threat.
“But let’s now talk about the important part: the science.”
Amazed, Sheraton replayed, double speed, again and again, the details about the making of the Khan embryo. Garcia described his painstaking reconstruction of 23 Genghis Khan chromosomes based on a historical relic of the conqueror.
“The decomposed tissue in the artifact gave incomplete and conflicting information,” he explained.
So first, Garcia and the Drukker AI built scaffolding, using healthy young chromosomes derived from umbilical cord blood from his own son, George. Over this framework, the Khan chromosomes were rebuilt. Sequences that were missing or defective were replaced with George’s. Finally, Garcia and the machine printed the Khan chromosomes on Drukker’s 3-D biological printer.
“In an Indian embryology lab, I don’t know how much those scientists or doctors know,” Garcia said, “those 23 Khan chromosomes were combined with King Mohammed’s.
“So the full complement of 46 human chromosomes was re-created and inserted into one of Noru’s eggs, where its own genetic material had been removed to make it a host.
“For the Khan embryo’s XY gender assignment,” Garcia explained, “ because a YY is impossible, I had to pick which Y chromosome to give that embryo to make it a boy. Since the king is my client, it’s his, while the X came from the Khan relic.”
Garcia added thoughtfully, “George and Prince Ahmat may be biologically related, one could say, if the Khan embryo is the one that survived the transfer.”
Then he looked pained. “Queen Noru may not be aware that Prince Ahmat might not be her biological child. I just hope the baby is the other fertilized egg that is her biological child with the king, the one where her husband’s repaired chromosomes were injected into her unaltered egg.
“So we successfully reconstituted healthy chromosomes in both embryos, replacing the defective ones caused by the family’s inbreeding. One of them — I don’t know which one — passed the test of survival and he is Prince Ahmat.
“My guess is,” Garcia finished, “that politics rather than the truth will dictate what King Mohammed tells his people is the prince’s heritage. That’s why he doesn’t want the baby tested.”
“And oh yes, he only wanted male embryos, of course he did,” she muttered.
She considered the timing of the recording and decided that it had been made before the king’s untimely death,
“But David,” Garcia added on the video message, ” this is all just a preface to what I’ll tell you next. In the months that I became intimately familiar with the Khan relic and its genetic constitution, something else became apparent. Actually, the machine noticed it first.”
Bright-eyed, looking straight into the camera, Garcia said, “The Drukker AI is leaping ahead as it learns. Why shouldn’t it, as an artificial replica of our own programming? It pointed out patterns in the Khan DNA that it hadn’t seen in such abundance before.
“Together, we found a coil in one Khan chromosome that I dubbed, ‘The Conductor.’ Like the maestro of a majestic symphony, in our dynamic modeling, it directed the activation of these signature patterns across multiple chromosomes.
“The machine agreed that he Conductor ‘turns noise into song.’”
Garcia now paused. His fingers tapped on a ghost piano. “Do you go to the symphony often, David? It’s my therapy, the one thing I miss the most about the West. Dr. B. has a sound system that I sometimes use. But like a photo, it’s just a memory, not the real thing.
“It doesn’t light me up.
“I’m not a musician, David, I have a hard time telling apart the strings, horns, woodwinds, etc. etc. I didn’t hear my first full orchestra until I was an adult, going with my wife to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at Symphony Hall in Boston.
“Oh, David, what an evening! Skies open to infinite angels, ginormous grand explosions of sound and song, first-time-fall-in-love epiphany…”
There were tears now in the scientists’ eyes. “So the Drukker and I named this gene ‘The Conductor.’
“We searched for it in human genome databases, especially in what used to be ancient Mongolia, Genghis Khan’s home. But the truth was actually staring us in the face.
“The first place we found anything that looked equivalent to the Khan’s Conductor gene, mutated as it had become, was in a defective chromosome of the Saburian royals. Then, the machine and I found more sporadic examples — randomly scattered around the world in human genetic databases. But due to privacy barriers, I couldn’t discover the identities of those individuals.”
Garcia nodded thoughtfully. “Is the Conductor a leadership gene in a person, a genotype that produces the phenotype of biological signals of dominance over other human beings? Just as ants and bees naturally have queens, are humans also programmed to unthinkingly follow some leaders when they appear? At certain times, might they come as our messiahs and saviors?
“Did the Saburian royals hope to reproduce within themselves this talent of ruling others? But sometimes they failed, creating birth defects instead?
“I have reconstituted the Conductor gene to its original healthy version. Those broken bits from the Saburian royal genome were helpful, though. It was technically easier to repair them than to reconstruct the entire sequence de novo. Also, they helped cross-check us, meaning the Drukker and me.”
She opened an attachment to Garcia’s message, a scientific presentation that he hoped to give someday to other interested researchers. In it, he described how he gave each of the two embryos one healthy copy of King Mohammed’s Conductor gene.
“The Khan twin has two copies of the Conductor gene, one from the artifact and the other from King Mohammed. If things fall apart in our world,” Garcia continued, “there is the one embryo that survived the transfer into Queen Noru, the baby Prince Ahmat. He may or may not be where the baton is, where the music can begin again.
“Perhaps there are other people out there born with working ‘Conductor’ genes, for good or ill, to lead swarms of humanity on our journeys through this world. At least now, we know we can’t reproduce this immense complicated splice of DNA coil — at least not the healthy original — intact down through generations of human inbreeding.
“I know you, David. You will point out how a possible dominance signaling splice in Ahmat’s genome is problematic because Genghis Khan was a brutal murderer-conqueror. I miss our political discussions. But is the human talent for leadership just a silvery web sometimes — almost invisible — that traps us? A barely visible net can have tremendous power.
“Your President Lincoln only mentioned the ‘better angels of our nature,’ not their dark mirror image. By waking the better or worse angels of our nature, the spider can unleash a creator or a destroyer.”
Garcia smiled. “Someone else besides me, with help from our increasingly intelligent machines, will take up that question for the future.”
Sheraton tapped and froze Garcia’s image on the screen.
“Manny, that’s why I live in America,” she told the image. “Our democracy was a response to royal egomaniacs so we’re not trapped in some silvery spider-web.”
She picked up her gold ingot and warmed it in her palm, squeezing her fingers over it, feeling its weight and then tapped the Play button.
Garcia concluded, “David, maybe your American democracy is fragile because it is not the natural human state, rather spun from a dream, especially in times of trouble like ours.
“All my Purple project details are now on the Drukker disc I sent to you. You and the smart machines can take up the torch. If you see my son, tell him that we don’t know what we don’t know. Goodbye, my friend, perhaps for a long time and then only until great minds meet again across the abyss of time.”
Minutes later,Sheraton’s phone rang, erasing the silence and displaying her daughter’s picture.
“Mom, I got your message just now. What’s up?”
“Honey, I…” she replied with immense relief.
The world out there had not just disappeared with her children as if God had just awakened from a dream and only Endon was left.
Now, she felt annoyed with her catastrophic thinking. Or was she upset about her patient who had died last night? The brilliant morning sun outside, reflecting off the snow, also drove out the shadows of her fears.
“Hi, I was just calling you to check-in,” she told Debbie.
“Um, why did you call so early in the morning?” grumbled her daughter. “ I thought something maybe was wrong. I was studying late last night and was in bed. I’m going back to sleep.”
They hung up. Debbie’s world was intact: lousy college food, annoying dorm super and the teaching assistant whose English was too poor to comprehend.
Still, the power was not yet on in Endon. After dressing with a final layer of a hat, muffler and thick gloves, she pulled on thick boots, picked up the two heaping full dog food bowls and headed to the barn.
How would she explain to David and Manny that she had listened to the message because she believed the world was ending after a commonplace power failure, and that she had finally succumbed to the doomsday culture of this little nowhere town?
Should she also make up a crazier story about being afraid, after seeing a ghost of the original prepper inhabitant of her home here?
Today, she was going to demand that Wayne Endon explain what was going on.
Ever since she had told him, before a trip up to Chicago to see Kochanski, that she was going to meet a male “friend,” Wayne had become aloof and critical. He visited the cabin less often, sending others for needed repairs, maintenance and installations that he always used to do himself.
Even though it was a weekday, there was little traffic in town today. The streetlights were working. Most of the power seemed to have returned, including to the clinic.
Over a lunch of take-out tacos in a small room behind closed doors, Endon explained, “ Elise, our town will now stay off the main power grid. We have an independent electric network, mostly solar, wind and water. The transition was last night. However, your cabin is not yet completely connected so you’ll stay on the generator for a few more days. Ron will come up to take care of it.”
He appeared not to have shaved recently. Usually neat, his nails were dirty and there were deep shadows under his eyes.
“Elise, when you first came, I thought you knew why you had been sent to Endon.
“Then it became apparent you didn’t know. When you visited Chicago, I believed it was to see our lawyer who gives legal assistance to many of our groups.
“We are part of a network of survivalist communities around the globe.
“We strive for self-sufficiency and prepare for someday when others will come for what we have after their own resources are used up. Practice, armed drills like the one last night may attract the attention of the government as potentially criminal, so that was my warning to you a few hours ago.
“It would not have been safe for you to go out on the road at the time. Anyway, fortunately, there was no trouble. Washington DC, even Jeff City, our state capitol where we fortunately have many friends, have become empty threats.
“But Elise, maybe you shouldn’t know more.”
“Wayne,” she said thoughtfully, “Sounds like Boston Harbor, pronounced Bah-ston Hah-bor if you’re a local, my ex- used to say that his blue-blood ancestors made a cuppa tea outta it.”
She looked more closely at him, at the fatigue in his face. “Wayne, you talked about fighting and people coming up to my cabin to hide.”
He wasn’t looking at her.
“Wayne,” she continued, “Please understand that’s scary. You’re right, I don’t want to know more. Honestly, after I talked to you earlier this morning, I imagined terrible things. Maybe this is not the place I need to stay after my contract with this clinic ends.”
He finally met her eyes. “I sure hope we can keep you, Elise. I apologize. Maybe I should have warned you about last night, but there has been so much going on. I’m also sorry you lost your patient. Boys like him are one of the reasons I do what I do, to bring them hope and take away their despair.”
“When you talked to me on the phone,” she said, “ you made it sound like the world outside Endon had — you said ‘it was dying.’”
“It is,” he said stiffly.
“When in doubt, be kind,” said a t-shirt she had once worn. She had been where he was, feeling discarded romantically, under a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress.
“Wayne,” she asked softly, “you don’t have to answer this if you think I shouldn’t know. But on the map last night, Endon was marked as one black spot on the globe. OK. So was Chicago. Chicago makes sense if you have your lawyer there. But what about Pandolf and Saburia and some of those other places?”
Endon shook his head. “I haven’t traveled much, Elise. We stay connected over a satellite network. My guess is that while most governments are aware of our community, we do try to keep under their radar. In Endon, we have our Chicago lawyer to help us understand the laws, and we pay our taxes. Some of the other cells out there are a part of banks, corporations and medical centers.”
“You’re everywhere?” she asked. “Even in the governments?”
Endon smiled. “Why not? Aren’t some religions? Christian sects, Jews, Muslims, they’re everywhere, too.”
“Wayne, In America, there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state in principle if not in practice. But you’re not part of a religion? ”
Endon shook his head. “I believe in science. Do you know how much technology it now takes to run my town?”
“OK, Wayne,” she said, looking at the wall clock. What did he mean by “science.” Just its practical applications? Indeed, the home-schooled Endon children were learning a different version of “science’ from hers.
“Thanks for lunch,” she finished, getting up, “it’s 1PM and the patients are arriving for the afternoon, so back to work. By the way, I’m going up to Chicago again next weekend. Beside taking care of the generator, could you also please send someone up to the cabin to feed the animals?”
Endon politely rose. “I’ll send the dogs’ trainer. Your friend in Chicago knows our lawyer, his name is Jim Sichet. It’s a small world.”
In Chicago, Elise Sheraton and Michael Kochanski escaped the bitter winter in The Spirit and Stone.
“How’s your vodka business doing?” she asked.
Proudly, he pulled out his phone and showed her Alex’s marketing campaign and the rising sales.
“That’s a lovely model as the face of your advertising,” she observed.
“Her name is Callie,” he said, “the wife of the artist. She truly is beautiful.
“And how are the Ozarks?” he asked her.
Embarrassed, she confessed her latest scare, the power outage after her patient died.
“I thought the world outside Endon was collapsing.
“It’s so isolated there, Michael, and I think I got caught up in their doomsday thinking. Endon is even now growing its own vegetables in giant warehouses, year-round, using robotic technology. You should see their chicken farms.
“They tell me that your lawyer friend, a Jim Sichet, helps apocalyptic cells in this country to stay within legal bounds.”
She described the rotating globe on the Endon community intranet.
“Not sure I’d call Jim my ‘friend,'” said Kochanski. “But I’m not surprised. He seems to have its finger in a lot of cookie jars.”
She laughed. “Oh, Michael, that’s not quite how we use that expression and with your accent, oh I’m so sorry — you sound so funny.”
They wandered to many topics. Replaying memories of previous dinners here and in Saburia, she sipped Loire and he drank his Dew. While she only nibbled at the thick cheesy salty steaming pizza, claiming how “delicious it always is,” he devoured his, with extra smoked herring, while promising aloud to go to the gym tomorrow.
“How’s Manny?” she asked, again feeling guilty about reading his letter.
“Fine. He’ll be coming this summer for the wedding.”
He looked surprised. “You don’t know? David is getting married.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
He grinned. “My turn to laugh at you. I guess the snail mail to the Ozarks takes longer, but I hear that a wedding Save-the-Date is on its way to you. Why don’t you get on social media? Then you won’t be the last to find out about things.”
She shook her head. “I find most of what people post online depressing. Still, this is happy news, Michael. I can’t believe David is getting married. He sure sounded happy about his girlfriend when we talked.”
He kept smiling at her. “I know you ladies get so excited about that kind of thing.”
“That’s a retro-male remark, Michael. It will not fly with me. I guess one can take the man — meaning you Michael — out of the Old World, but cannot take the Old World out of the man.”
Perhaps at Campbell’s wedding, she could confess to Garcia and return the letter and disc.
“Where are they getting married, Michael?” she asked. “The East Coast, Texas, New York City?”
“Pandolf,” he replied. “I believe Mary, our first patient, is coming. The old lady is still ‘knocking it out of the park.’ Do you like that American baseball expression?”
She smiled. “I knew Mary was doing well. It’ll be nice to see her again. Still, Michael, Pandolf, that’s another place on the satellite map I saw the other day.”
Frowning, she added, “David is somehow in that complicated web. Michael, what do you know about a Purple project?”
He looked around warily. “Who told you?”
He picked up their phones and turned them off. For extra caution, he even moved them behind the salt and pepper shakers where the speakers blared the music that the young restaurant manager insisted on, saying, “Mr. Kochanski, trust me, these are the tunes people want to listen to.”
She confessed about listening to Garcia’s message to Campbell. “Michael, it was sweet. Manny just wanted to share his accomplishments with another scientist.”
She continued, “Manny described listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Boston feeling joy and brotherhood.”
“Beethoven’s Ninth,” said Kochanski, frowning. “Many years ago, when I first came to Chicago, I fell in love with a flute player in the Symphony living in a building I managed. She wasn’t interested in me. I don’t blame her. At that time, I had little to give any woman. Still, I used to get a seat in Symphony Center where I could see her play. ‘Twinkle-Fingers,’ I called her.
“For Beethoven’s Ninth, I remember it was a full house. When the music was over, the conductor could barely stand, red-faced after an hour of dancing, hair like wildfire. We gave him a standing ovation. Me too, I was on my feet, inspired, cheering with the rest, believing in brotherhood, me a Pole applauding for a German composer.
“Then I returned to my parking spot far away, alone, cold black reality.”
He shrugged. “The same land that produced Beethoven also gave us Hitler. I love the music but no brotherhood for me, thank you. I’d rather think for myself.
“So yes, Elise, I know about the Purple project,” he disclosed.
“It’s a good thing it’s so loud here in the Spirit and Stone,” he continued. “I always worry about someone listening to me, devices more than people, getting smarter and smarter than us. But I like your idea of returning Manny’s message and disc to him and not giving it to David. The fewer people find out about the king’s scheme, the better.
“Please don’t tell anyone, Elise. David doesn’t know about the Purple Project, and he’s starting a new life with a woman he loves. Why bother him with that old baggage? I’ll tell Manny the same thing.”
“OK, I agree.”
A burly guard came up to their table to say hello. Kochanski proudly introduced “Dr. Elise Sheraton.”
After the man left, she asked, “Michael, why is there so much security now in your building? I never had to pass through screening before, and there are new guards at the elevators.”
“Oh, yes,” he replied, smiling broadly, “So that lawyer, Jim, has his ‘finger-on-the-cookie’ here too.”
His eyes twinkled. “My building has a penthouse suite where he placed a gorgeous royal princess and her entourage from Saburia, East Africa. I was waiting to see you and to tell you about it.”
Her eyes widened. “Is Queen Noru of Saburia really now staying in this building, Michael? I knew she was in Chicago. So I left a message for her at her embassy about visiting her and her baby.”
He nodded. “We’ll send someone up to the queen in the morning to arrange it. Your timing is good. She’ll return to Saburia at the end of the month.”
“Michael, Saburia was another spot where they showed an apocalyptic cell. I worry that our world is in a bad way, that Wayne Endon is right, that our planet, our civilization, our world is dying.”
“Elise,” he said firmly, “Here I am in my building, in my restaurant, drinking my Dew, with my good friend, eating the best pizza in the world, in Chicago, the United States of America, 2027.”
He raised his glass, waiting for her to clink it.
Then he said something in Polish.
“What was that you just said?” she asked. “You know that today is the Ides of March?”
“To the health of a beautiful lady,” he replied.