Airspace East Africa
Plane gliding a slow descent through tufts of cirrus clouds, Campbell descended into ancient Ramses — renamed from colonial days. From his last trip, he remembered a pleasant city: clean streets, friendly people and musical calls to worship.
Nibbling buttery toast, dusted with cinnamon sugar, sipping more breakfast coffee, he remembered a local flaky pudding with honey and cinnamon — a precious spice imported into Saburia from South Asia since ancient times.
He scrolled through his text messages. From George: “Bye, Dr. Campbell, have a fun trip.”
His own laissez-faire upbringing had worked out fine. As in the African proverb: “it takes a village,” a hodgepodge of people including himself were helping out George after his father’s ICE detention. He was paying it forward.
Michael Kochanski, who diagnosed people without any professional qualifications, joked that Garcia was “on the Asperger/autism spectrum,” noting that the scientist’s primary allegiance was to his lab projects.
“Once upon a time, far, far, away…” On a magical old beach a few hours drive from Ramses, Kochanski was waiting for him now in a different world from the Pole’s home base in Chicago or the one he had lost in Eastern Europe.
Neither Kochanski nor Garcia saw the world as he did — being raised in the United States. What were those two cooking up — stored on the mystery disc in the purple case?
Maybe best to not know, time to move on.
Drukker’s new parent company, Zoser, had already offered Campbell a job: stable employment in an international corporation that was adept at the games of various national powers and had offices everywhere, including his home state Texas.
But now traveling near the land of the Sphinx, he wanted to unlock the riddle of the sixth data file he was transporting. The case’s purple color hinted at a royal secret.
Years before him, King Mohammed had attended the same boarding school as him, StarHall. Based in New England, StarHall continued the tradition of an international institution to educate the world’s elite young. There used to be a glass plaque outside the Principal’s office: “Duke Wellington, mid-1800s: ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’”
The plaque was removed after a student protest led by Mohammed against colonial legacies. Campbell sketched the royal family tree on a napkin. A thick black line connected Mohammed to Salma, his cousin and first wife. Their oldest son, Syed Malik, was the Crown Prince at college in the United States.
In official pictures, Malik was a handsome young man, bearded, his head covered in traditional tribal attire. The prince told his awed subjects that he was learning about computers in Silicon Valley. Lighting bright hopes about their country’s future, their prince was hobnobbing with the tech titans of a fabled golden land.
Kochanski had told him that the king had recently married his third wife, nineteen-year-old Noru and was — eyes rolling — “deeply in love with his soulmate.”
That night at dinner when they were alone, Kochanski had added, “Mohammed could try to change the line of succession for a son with his new wife. His own father had set a precedent with Bassam, his oldest son. The rumors about Bassam is that he’s a drunken playboy in Rio having a good time with the family money. But Salma’s family is powerful if Mohammed wants to mess with the traditional rule of primogeniture.
“Queen Salma may look like a delicate doll,” Kochanski had added with a mischievous smile, “but I hear she can twist you inside out, oh yes that toy talks right back. She has her whole clan behind her. Who said women are not powerful in her culture?
“Also, Salma grew up with Mohammed as her first cousin so doesn’t hold him in awe as his other wives do.”
Why did Kochanski care so much about Saburian royal succession? On the airplane napkin, Campbell struck above Salma’s name with the point of his pen and left thick black dots.
That third wife to an older man — perhaps she was more adoring than Salma. He looked out of the airplane window at the skies and remembered Lucky — he liked her American independence.
Through the window tilting to the East, he admired the blade edges of the Saburian mountain ridges piercing the mist. Its snow-capped peaks had surprised him on his first trip. Mountains, ice, and snow can be found in many parts of Africa, and those mysterious mountains marked the dangerous Southeastern edge of this land from ancient times. The rebels who opposed the royal family now made their home there. Saburian media was saturated with stories of their barbarous enemies on those icy slopes.
Saburia’s cable series about the rebels, Black Shadows, was set in the foothills of the mountains below. The king had banned the final episode of the last season as “evil.” When the new season began with a story gap, viewers desperately scoured for information — in sources from local gossip to the Internet — to discover what had been cut out.
“Black Shadows,” Kochanski had told him, “is a genius idea by our king to let his people’s imaginations picture the evil of the rebellion. Even the children have nightmares. Still, the global military machine keeps putting money into his war against the insurgents — it’s a successful business model for the major powers — US, Russia, China — selling weapons and vehicles to both sides and then pitting them against each other.
“I’m not judging,” Kochanski insisted, “ I’m a humble man. It’s like boxing or football games except you take it up a few notches and then watch -— safely on your screen — lots of foreigners die horribly. Yet, we look down on the ancient Romans and their slave gladiators.”
The businessman tapped his head. “Boxers, football players, they get concussions. In wars, soldiers come back damaged. So send the poor and powerless to fight. Some of us are damaged before we can even grow up.”
Kochanski liked to say that he learned about America from its “shows.” On the airplane television screen in front of him, Campbell clicked onto Black Shadows where Saburian politics became entertainment. He drank cold airplane coffee and tried to decipher the instructions for turning on the English subtitles written in Mandarin and Saburian. Definitely no longer living in the days of the British empire, his knowledge of both languages being minimal, he now called the Egyptian flight attendant to help him.
Brisk and careful not to lean too close, the young woman read aloud the Mandarin instructions, her long and gloved index finger following the writing. At least his inability to speak these languages was not a problem at the Saburian base where English was still the primary language between different nationalities.
“Black Shadows has no English subtitles,” she concluded. “But here, you can watch the Chinese dubbed version which has English subtitles.” Fingers flew over the touchscreen and then she placed headphones on him.
“You must listen to the music. It’s beautiful even if you can’t understand what they’re saying” Her fingertips brushed the sensitive skin behind his ears.
He breathed deeply. Was it her touch? Or a shiver of fear for his re-entry into Saburia with that mysterious purple case?
On his screen, Black Shadows started. A group of armed men in military vehicles chased a family of endangered lyumas whose young made valuable exotic pets to be shipped to other countries. Then the program abruptly stopped playing, and the sign came on to fasten seatbelts.
He looked at the time of his phone, clicked the button repeatedly and noted a three-minute discrepancy with the time on the screen. Then his phone reset and the times resynchronized.
Puzzled, he looked around the airplane cabin again at the heads of some of the other men clustered next to two windows with their shades up. Muttering intently to each other, one looked familiar with a dark beard, perhaps Middle Eastern or Mediterranean.
Yes, Campbell recognized him from his photo on his CV which Kochanski had shown him a year ago. He was another young recruit for Drukker in San Francisco with a degree in computational physics from CalTech.
Turbulence shook the plane, reminding Campbell that he was about to be dropped into a foreign country that still had medieval practices like public executions: solemn morning rituals for hangings. Security was ubiquitous. Checkpoints, dogs, and a mixture of Saburian and Chinese military guarded schools and airports as well as the mosques and markets.
Over mixed drinks from a robot waiter in Kochanski’s sparse office, alcohol banned in the Islamic country and the air-conditioning a luxury in the desert, Kochanski had explained “what you won’t see in the news around here.
“Chinese support with weaponry and technology is indispensable. Saburia has small, proud minority tribes who are targets for foreign infiltrators who give them money and weapons.
“So the Chinese help to combat the mountain insurgency. The king has no choice but to play the proxy wars of more powerful countries.
“The judicial system is slow for the poor. Once arrested, you would be happier being hanged than spending years in hard labor.
“The jails are bugged. The computers are hacked. There is traditional torture, magic, extrajudicial executions and crowd agitators for vigilante justice. Only if he has to, the king will openly bring out soldiers.”
Kochanski had been pacing in front of the window. Except for a small plant on the sill, the view outside was a shimmering desert. “If arrested, infidels like you and me are expelled from this country, David, to return on penalty of death. If your country doesn’t want you, then convert to Islam, enter the prisons or choose to die.”
At the desert base, Kochanski had gone on that day in a softer tone. “But you see our king has a humanitarian side. Saburia’s public welfare programs, the free schools, and clinics are expensive. So we depend heavily on the mining of natural resources and tourism along the coast and in our national parks.”
“Our king” and “we”? Campbell wondered if Kochanski would abandon him if he was arrested in Saburia? Just like he wasn’t helping Garcia with the ICE detention?
“Sorry about my lectures,” Kochanksi had said to Campbell. “Let’s go for a drive and see some wildlife.
“I also advise the king about poaching. Our rare lyuma packs attract wealthy international hunters. On the other hand, powerful and influential people are happy to see us as a safe harbor for endangered species. So we decided poaching will be punished by public hanging.
“But poachers are usually shot dead first because bounty hunters don’t get paid extra for housing them. Our king’s critics complain that he values his rare wildlife more than his people. But I say that with all the social welfare, no one in Saburia can say they need to poach to feed their families.
“Our king hates our savaging of animals and our environment. People have overpopulated our planet. Yes, our cancer treatment center prolongs the lives of only a few rich people, but our scientific discoveries will be for the history books.”
Kochanski’s private car was being repaired so they brought him his daughter’s lavender vehicle instead.
The businessman complained. The color didn’t fit on a military campus. It was an automatic because his daughter refused to learn to drive a stick shift. He hated the mechanical woman’s voice which nagged him about his seat belt, how all the doors automatically locked and the sophisticated electronics that shot out arctic blasts of air conditioning.
“I want to drive a car, not be driven inside a refrigerated computer. But Katya won’t let me disable any functions which our mechanics here can do. It makes me feel my age.
“But David, I don’t think she’ll come back to Saburia. She went out on the beach here with some beer, wearing a bikini and got heckled by some locals. One of the Chinese patrol guards escorted her back. So maybe the king or one of his men will buy her car for a wife or daughter.
“Katya is the only woman I can’t fire, divorce or break up with,” he had almost boasted.
In the airplane’s front section, Campbell recognized the flight attendant’s voice, hushed and angry. She was upbraiding a co-worker about some work. The airplane continued its bumpy approach to Ramses.
Feeling trapped in the dropping airplane, Campbell remembered Kochanski’s advice against getting arrested in Saburia. What was Manny working on in secret, stored in that purple case for which he was a foolish mule? How much did the Chinese know? Business and politics is a dangerous combination.
The seat belt light went off. He pressed the button for the attendant to help him resume Black Shadows. Thinking about the skip in time between his phone and the TV, he concluded that a pedestrian reason for the three-minute time discrepancy was likely. His cellphone had to reset after traveling halfway around the globe. But fantastical explanations were more entertaining.
Sometimes he had prescient dreams that never predicted anything practical — like the stock market — only inchoate danger. Last night on the plane, he had dreamed he was on a beach in Saburia. The upside-down starry bowl of its black skies spilled above him. A rent grew in the night sky, a line where all the stars disappeared and the orange ball of a strange sun grew huge above him.
The first time he had this dream was at StarHall. The school therapist had asked him, “What does it mean to you?”
Fourteen years old at the time, he had replied, “It means, I think… nothing really ever dies, everything just changes.” Tears he could not control sprung to his eyes. His legs quivered.
Dr. Skinner had nodded and smiled. After that , the vision of a sky cracking open —like an eggshell — had become less fearful.
Campbell wondered what Dr. Skinner had said that the StarHall administration gave him a second chance. But the ringleader of their school clique had been expelled. That bully’s older brother, Jim Sichet, was now a successful lawyer in Chicago that Kochanski had warned him about. Dramatic as usual, pointing to the Chicago River’s general direction, Kochanski had said, “I know you guys were all in StarHall together. But we’re on opposite sides of the river, Jim Sichet and I — lots of dead bodies have floated in there.”
Campbell’s old girlfriend, Susan, a biology major at MIT, had said the stars were fluorescent bacteria and the human race was lower even — in that cosmic order — mere sparks of awareness, trivial in existence compared to intelligent life far beyond its abilities to comprehend.
“And they watch us under their microscopes and pitch us into the trash when they are done,” she had told him. Married now with kids, he saw her name in the author lists of scientific journals. Max, her dog and their last connection, had passed away, and they hadn’t spoken since.
Campbell flew often. Growing older by clicks of the clock, between Susan and his current love, Lucky, his mind’s expansion cracked old realities to explore new mysteries. What would a Bermuda Triangle experience be like, where he would disappear into a tear in the universe, ride a wave of energy that compressed and then propelled him faster than light, to alight — this morning — into some unknown destination in space-time?
A cramp of foreboding warned that a tear in his universe could also reveal unknown evils. Like a spider in the darkness — not self-aware — Michael Kochanski was a tuned Internet antenna filtering signals from an exponential, international, electronic bazaar of information and transactions, mining contacts and ideas. Kochanski was not trying to find the Meaning of the Universe or for that matter, a Cure for Cancer. He was just a businessman like the ancient cinnamon traders on dangerous spice routes.
What else motivated Kochanski? Not just money because he was proud of his daughter and advising a king. Purple was the color of royalty. That had to be a clue about the mystery case he was transporting.
Campbell had followed Kochanski into the unknown as ancient sailors had traversed oceans guided only by the stars. What danger lay ahead in his second visit to Saburia? It might become too late to return and renew the Campbell family line: to rebuild his own castle on sandy edges besides the murky waters of the world’s mystery.
During his last visit to the Saburian campus, they had taken away his two guns at the entry gate security checkpoint. Shocked, he had said nothing in part because he had traveled to Saburia on a private jet and never thought his firearms would be an issue.
Returning his weapons to him when he left, a guard had admired them. “Dr. Campbell, they were passed around. It amazes us, the Chinese too, that in America, a private citizen can keep guns so advanced.”
On this, his second trip, he had left his firearms —and any bewilderment they may create — at home.
Black Shadows abruptly opened again on the tiny television screen; the scene showed a peaceful town bright in the sunlight, snow on the sloped rooftops of small houses. In the background rose the signature jagged tops of the Saburian mountain chain. The picture angled, so it appeared the great peaks were marching forward toward the little homes, rank on rank, looming shadows getting closer and the light fading.
Martial music, heavy vibration of drums and horns, displaced pastoral twangs. An ominous group of armed rebels approached the town. Small dots in the distant brush became a crush of warriors and vehicles. Chest tightening in an atavistic response to threat, he heard the roar of his plane, its wings cutting through the lowest clouds, approaching one of the thin airstrips in the vast desert below.