Flight to Saburia, Africa
After a final text to George: “Africa, back to where we came from,” David Campbell boarded Pandolf’s speed-shuttle to San Francisco and next, his flight over the Pacific to Africa. His second ride on the Drukker plane, its wings cut away from the ground — into the clouds.
The corporate jet flew faster and higher than commercial aircraft. Exhilarated, soaring into the skies like Icarus, he forgot he was weeks behind schedule to meet Kochanski, delayed by Garcia’s unexpected disappearance and the search for the computer drives.
Recruiting Garcia at the NIH four years ago when the scientist lost his job with Dietrich, then steering him to Nepski’s pregnancy lab was easy— because Pandolf was going to buy the Drukker AI machine that Garcia needed for his independent research. Next, Soria Clinics sent the scientist actual patient files without their names or other identifiers — terminal cancer cases.
“This is too good to be true,” Garcia had told Campbell.
Puzzled by Kochanski’s uncanny ability to find treasure in scientific connections for both Garcia and himself — despite lacking technical background — Campbell fell asleep. Lights off in the plane as it jetted over Asia, he awoke hours later in Athens, briefly disembarking for the plane’s disinfecting cycle.
Taking off again, his watch next showed him over the Greek coast. Now cruising over the dark Mediterranean, Campbell pictured the winged Icarus in flames, falling into this storied black sea, the first incinerated astronaut. Flying so high, did Icarus feel lonely? Grateful that flight technology had evolved since mythical Greece, he folded his hands comfortably in his lap.
Traversing long distances while sitting-in-place created a new dimension of reverie, distilling long spans of time into memories where truth itself is relative. First, he pictured Lucky, Julia Malone, a vision of everything beautiful, then George Garcia’s averted eyes when he asked if he had heard from his father, the resemblance to his father — not just physical — also their spirit, a light burning bright.
The boy had shaken his head, a bad liar. Who told him to lie? Why? The black sky outside the airplane window had no answer. Was it George’s aunt in Chicago? Should Garcia’s family even trust a lawyer on Kochanski’s payroll?
When he first started working with the Pole four years ago, he had said , “Michael, bending the law can be OK. But I have a conscience.” They were sitting on the balcony of Kochanski’s condominium overlooking Lake Michigan and the Gold Coast.
“That’s one reason I like you, David. I also have an honor code and value it in the people I work with. Still, don’t overdo the questions.”
So back at Pandolf, Campbell did not probe George further for information. But his conscience nagged. Was Garcia getting the help he needed?
Two years ago, doing online research on Kochanski, Campbell had discovered that Garcia’s sister was married to a prominent artist in Chicago, Max Herman. Herman showed paintings in Kochanski’s new gallery.
“Yes,” Garcia had observed, “Michael is in awe of fine art. Just like breakthrough technology, he doesn’t understand that either. Like the Renaissance Medicis, spending money buying and building, Michael also needs an expert’s guidance. So I suggested he talk to my brother-in-law who is actually a professional artist.”
They discussed Kochanski’s Eastern European roots and his Dew vodka, still made in Poland. The name misled. They only sipped the burning liquor to be polite.
Garcia had added, “People like Michael are successful because they find the right people like us to work with them. Did you know that now he’s working on a new construction project, a medical clinic for a king in Africa?”
What is it like to own a country?
His watch showed the plane was crossing the African border. Campbell gave up on trying to go back to sleep and pulled the side lever of his spacious bed, folding it back into a chair.
Outside the window, Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn shimmered over turquoise sea which the Greeks had jeweled into their mythology. Enthralled, wide awake, he pressed the call button for breakfast.
The flight attendant was prompt. She opened the curtain with a bright smile, carrying in a tray with hot coffee, buttered toast, scrambled egg whites, and thanks to Shelly’s influence: healthy hot oatmeal topped with granola, local yogurt, strawberries and bananas. The picture on the menu did not do the lovely dish justice — or this smiling, young Egyptian delivering it. Greece and now Egypt, he gazed into her bright eyes and smiled back, feeling poetic — he could be Antony to her Cleopatra.
“Thanks, this looks delicious. It’s a good thing I gave up my morning bacon given where my work takes me these days.”
Her smile disappeared. She was Moslem — pork is forbidden — he had made a faux pas.
He had only given up bacon because his doctor told him to cut back on “salt and saturated fat.” In true Campbell family tradition, his blood pressure and cholesterol were rising. Scared by his father’s early death from a heart attack, he now faithfully took two pills every day, a tiny white bisected disc and a brilliant blue capsule. Both brown prescription bottles, along with the computer discs and laptop, were in his carry-on.
With the help of the cardiologist, Campbell hoped to live long and rebuild his family line. Years ago, visiting a cold Normandy beach and a ruined castle, just bits of stone wall overlooking rough waters, he had seen how the catastrophe of his father’s death had breached his family’s defenses, the gate had no lock, people walking in and out of his childhood — occupiers who treated him like a second-class citizen in his own home.
The sweet honey in his yogurt awoke another memory. Kevin Schmitt was the groundskeeper on their cattle ranch in the country. Grilling steaks from their own livestock, bratwurst from the neighbors’ and making the best venison sticks, Schmitt also taught Campbell how to hunt and fish alongside his own children. Serving sugary baked beans with pork, still one of his favorite dishes, the Mrs. shared practical wisdom in her kitchen.
On one recent trip back to Texas, Schmitt and Campbell had shared beers, burgers and anecdotes in the local diner. Their conversation was frequently interrupted by people they both knew.
“Thanks, Kevin,” he had said, “for your leadership at the ranch over the years. I’m sure we’d have lost this land if it wasn’t for you.”
“I did it for your dad,” Schmitt said, smiling. “We grew up together. Maybe my family was not as fine as yours, and we didn’t go to the same schools, but we still spent a lot of time together.
He smiled. “You’re the picture of your father, from the start. I just had to steer this thing — he waved to the brown and green expanse of the land outside — until you grew up.”
Recalling Schmitt as a younger man, before time had written on his face in wrinkles and red patches, and the surgeon had carved cancer out of his chin, he remembered the timeless, cloudless, sunbleached sky outside the window that day, At least Dad was spared the journey of growing old.
He had retired his father’s friend with a big party and a generous pension. Then Campbell had returned for his funeral. Ruth, his daughter, and her husband, were now the property managers and knew a lot more than Campbell about the business. As an absentee landlord, they were his tenuous link to the family ranch — ensuring that the trust binding that small-town community included him.
Clicking on his laptop, Campbell now reviewed the ranch’s latest reports and the waiting list for hunting leases. The WiFi on the plane was slow. Having lost some acreage after his father died, land sold to support his mother, he planned to purchase it back. Lately, his mother reached out to him regularly. But in her younger days, between her men friends and stepfather, he ended up at StarHall, the boarding school.
He had never told Shelly about his family owning a cattle ranch in Texas. Spending this last month around Shelly, a vegetarian, he was eating less meat.
During Campbell’s last visit to Saburia, sitting together in his private suite, Kochanski had enjoyed a bloody steak cooked even less than his own.
“It’s frozen and flown in from Texas,” he said, washing a bite down with his trademark vodka. “Let’s make some arrangements to source the beef around here from your ranch.”
“Sure, what are the tastes for meat on this base.”
“I like my steak bloody and my vodka rough . As for everyone else, I’ll connect you to Salim, the base manager. I know there’s the Islamic way, and he’ll tell you what the Chinese like too.”
A Saburian waiter had come to take away their dinner plates. Campbell recalled the assortment of help his mother had hired when he was growing up.. There was Delia, the zany housekeeper. She would pick him up from tennis lessons at the club.
“Chemicals,” she would scold and made him throw out all his candy and soda before starting the car.
A lot of upper-class kids were like him, raised by “the help,” private schools, and a financial structure that protected their inheritance. Fleets of estate lawyers thwarted predatory interlopers like his stepfather, who married someone wealthy and lonely — like his mother. Documents were signed years before his father’s death, a prenuptial agreement, as if the world already planned for the tired old story of his father’s premature death, his widow’s future lovers, and then her second husband.
“Nothing new under the sun, right?” observed the family lawyer paid to protect him — the only son — after his father’s death, making sure Campbell was the undisputed heir to the estate. Many of his friends in boarding school at StarHall were like him. But they were usually cast off after a divorce, when a younger wife sealed the deal with her rich older husband, first with a ring and then with more kids.
Describing this to Kochanski, he mused, “Perhaps, the US should establish a legal structure like Saburia’s, where inheritance is along bloodlines, the eldest child like me getting priority. Ancestor law could put a lot of American trust and estate lawyers out of work.”
But Kochanski shook a balding head. “It only makes things more complicated.” He glanced sideways at the Saburian waiter, warning Campbell to not say more.
Later, when they were alone, Kochanski told him about Bassam, King Mohammed’s older half-brother, who had not been crowned. The royal family was inbred, he said, and Bassam had a rare genetic disease. Saburia was not America, and a disabled man could not be king.
His breakfast finished in time for the morning sun to blaze onto his computer screen, the airplane WiFi also gloriously reconnected. Closing the blind, he drank more coffee and rifled through files on his laptop, more legal documents, and located the boilerplate contract he had signed for the sublet for George.
What was the end date? It had been a relief to find it just one floor below Lucky and Shelly. Garcia’s apartment would have been no place for the teenager after ICE’s thorough search.
The young attendant checked back to see if Campbell needed anything. Molasses-brown wide eyes, her head and lower face demurely covered with a silk scarf, she appeared to have forgotten his gaffe about bacon. Asking for more coffee — only because he liked to look at her, he recalled the picture of George’s middle-aged uncle with his aunt, who was as young as this beauty and…
“Lucky, perhaps this time I’ll be lucky.” What better image to while the time away on? But he liked her real name better. “Julia.” Jules, Jewel, Julius Cesar, Juliette and her Romeo… they would settle down on a large family home, endless acreage at the ranch, her as his wife, then their little son on a horse, and a small plane on an airstrip nearby.
He walked around the cabin. Five other men had boarded in Athens: two East Asians, an Indian, one who looked Mediterranean or Middle Eastern and a tall Nordic man who towered over the others. Between pandemics, only some wore masks. Eyes meeting with polite nods, he recognized no one.
The only other woman was in her 40s and engrossed in her laptop. Campbell frowned. He had seen her before. Unmasked, wearing a slate gray tank top, she had short-cropped hair, black frame glasses and bright lipstick. A few minutes later, interrupting more daydreaming about Lucky, she unexpectedly walked over.
“Dr.Campbell, I’m Dr. Elise Sheraton.” Her voice was crisp, her handshake firm, medical glove on his quickly donned one, her fingers with no rings, she observed, “You are quick with those gloves, as international passengers, we are vectors for disease — like mosquitos.
“I waited for you to wake up. I got on the plane in Athens. Michael Kochanski sent me to come with you.”
“Call me David.” From a torrent of emails from Soria Clinics, he now remembered her photo, next to Dr. B.’s, short for Bhattacharya, the name on the abandoned locker at Pandolf.
Garcia had told him back in Pandolf, “David, I can’t go to Saburia yet. You’ll make sure these two doctors follow my instructions for our projects there?”
To Elise, he now described the ocean’s edge in Saburia’s only coastal military base, where twinkling boats and ships slipped in and out of the port sporting a variety of flags and unreadable names. “Looking forward to the view on my balcony,” he said, “overlooking the beach, skies black Arabian nights — filled with stars and this wispy ribbon of the Milky Way.”
Before walking away, Elise said, “Michael said the loader for the Drukker will be at the airport. Let’s meet up again when we land.”
A version of the computer had military applications. Drukker had trouble getting their AI machine out of the United States. Then Zoser, a giant family of corporations with deep government connections, acquired Drukker. Necessary security clearances appeared. Campbell had first heard about the sale in the business news, which he read avidly, firmly believing that nothing explained the world better than how the tides of its money flowed.
Now on an airplane over the edge of the African continent, Campbell remembered the old email from Kochanski four years ago, asking him to recruit a “smart” scientist at the NIH, the specs for a candidate for Soria, an international medical clinic chain for whom Kochanski was helping to build a clinic in Saburia.
“They’re looking for a scientist to develop ‘profitable research protocols,’”Kochanski had clarified, after he complained that Soria’s job description was vague. So Campbell had found Garcia.
Shutting his laptop, he slid the airplane blind up to let in the brilliant African sky. Things made even less sense now. What were the contents of the computer drives in the purple case that he was carrying?
Leaving Dietrich’s lab at the NIH, Garcia briefly landed next door in another government lab, saying, “always slots to drop disposable foreign scientists like me back into the soul-shredder of the American scientific bureaucracy.”
At Pandolf, Garcia grudgingly admitted that Nepksi was “OK. He gives me space and respect. Still, I wish I could have found work at a cancer research lab. All those job applications got rejected. I didn’t have the right experience or references.
“I guess it still worked out, especially having an AI computer to do my own research. Thank you.”
He had added, “David, do you really believe the cynical things Michael says about the Drukker board meetings? Businessmen are not sentimental…unless Michael brings out that side in them, so they will sell their AI machines more cheaply to Pandolf and then to Saburia so we can continue our work there. Everything is not always what it seems, except maybe in Texas.
“Except you’re not just Texas,” Garcia had continued wryly, “When you’re not trying to put on that act with the accent, like back at the NIH when you were a spotter for Soria. Later, I detected your Boston flavor. Maybe I notice these things because I come from another country altogether, the stranger in the strange land.”