Airspace, East Africa
His plane gliding a slow descent through tufts of cirrus clouds, Campbell descended into ancient Ramses — renamed from colonial days — a pleasant city: clean streets, friendly people and musical calls to worship.
Nibbling buttery toast, dusted with cinnamon sugar, sipping more breakfast coffee, he tried to remember the name of a local flaky pudding with honey and cinnamon, a spice imported into Saburia from Asia since ancient times — along ancient routes, a risky journey that used to make it rare and precious.
On his phone, he saw the last text from George: “Bye, Dr. Campbell, have a fun trip.”
He was only one of a hodgepodge of people who were helping George out after his father’s ICE detention as in the African proverb: “it takes a village.” His own laissez-faire upbringing had worked out fine. With George, he was paying it forward to another kid.
Kochanski, who diagnosed people without any professional qualifications, joked that George’s father was “on the Asperger/autism spectrum,” noting that “Manny’s main allegiance is to his lab projects. As for his son, what do I know? I never knew my father and then I have a daughter.”
“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 drive?
After all, he thought, he was aloft near the home of the Sphinx. Here was a riddle. Maybe best not to know, time to move on. Drukker’s new parent company, Zoser, had already offered him a job. They had offices everywhere, including his home state Texas.
The drive’s purple case hinted at a royal secret. He had not known King Mohammed at StarHall, their New England boarding school. But he had heard the story.
There used to be a glass plaque outside the school principal’s office with the inscription: “Duke Wellington, mid-1800s: The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” It was removed after Mohammed had led a student protest against colonial legacies.
In European history class, they used to sketch royal family trees, the teacher’s obsession. On a paper napkin, he now started one with a black Sharpie, connecting 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, who told his awed subjects that he was studying in Silicon Valley. Lighting bright hopes about their country’s future, he described hobnobbing with the tech titans of a fabled golden land.
King Mohammed had a second wife somewhere.
Then the king had recently married for a third time, nineteen-year-old Noru.
“The king is deeply in love with his soulmate,” Kochanski had said with an eyeroll.
Kochanski then mused, “I wonder if the king will try to change the line of succession if he has a son with this new beloved. His own father broke the traditional rule — primogeniture — by setting aside his oldest son. They say Bassam’s in Rio now having a good time with the family money.
“But Queen Salma is his first cousin and family, not just an expired wife. They say she may look like a delicate doll — a mischievous smile lit Kochanski’s face — but she can twist you inside out, oh yes, that toy talks right back. Who said women are not powerful in her culture?”
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.
Saburian media was saturated with stories of barbarous rebels on those icy slopes. The cable series, 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, Saburians desperately searched for information — local gossip to the Internet — to discover what had been cut out.
“Black Shadows,” Kochanski said, “the show’s a genius idea by our king. His people imagine the evil of the rebellion. Even the children have nightmares.
“Still, the global military machine keeps putting money into the king’s war against the insurgents — a successful business model for the major powers — US, Russia, China — selling weapons and tech to both sides and then pitting them against each other.
“I’m not judging, you know,” 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.”
Kochanski tapped his head. “Boxers, football players, they get concussions. In wars, soldiers come back damaged. So we send the poor and powerless to fight. Some of us are damaged before we even grow up.
“Watch Black Shadows,” Kochanski had advised. “Shows are how I learned about America and Saburia. Who knew education was so entertaining?”
On the screen in front of him, Campbell clicked onto Black Shadows. He drank cold airplane coffee and tried to decipher the instructions to turn on the English subtitles. Definitely no longer living in the days of the British empire, he now called the Egyptian flight attendant to help him with the Saburian and Mandarin instructions.
She was brisk and careful not to lean too close as she read aloud the Mandarin instructions, her long and gloved index finger following the writing. At least at the Saburian base, English was still the primary language for foreigners.
“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 the words.” Her fingertips brushed the sensitive skin behind his ears.
He inhaled sharply. Was it her touch? Or a shiver of fear, ripples from an unknown danger about to surface?
On his screen, Black Shadows started. A group of armed men in military vehicles chased a family of endangered lyumas whose young fetched high prices in other countries. Then the program abruptly stopped. 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 now looked familiar, perhaps Middle Eastern or Mediterranean.
Yes, despite the new dark beard, he recognized the man from his photo on his CV, a young recruit for Drukker in San Francisco with a degree in computational physics from CalTech.
Turbulence shook the plane. 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 … well… you can die.”
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 on the mining of natural resources and tourism — on the coast and in our national parks.”
What did Kochanski mean by “our king” and “we”? Would Kochanski abandon him if he was arrested in Saburia? Just like he wasn’t helping Garcia with his ICE detention?
“Sorry about my lectures,” Kochanksi had told Campbell. “Let’s go for a drive and see some wildlife.
“David, 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 on the base was being repaired that day so they brought him his daughter’s lavender vehicle instead. He then complained about how 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 pretty 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 added, sounding proud.
In the airplane’s front section, Campbell recognized the flight attendant’s voice, hushed and angry, upbraiding a co-worker about some work. The airplane continued its bumpy approach to Ramses.
Trapped in the dropping airplane, he remembered Kochanski’s advice against getting arrested in Saburia. What was 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 a killing in 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 in high school at StarHall. The school therapist had asked him, “What does it mean to you?”
“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 smiled. After that, the dream of a sky cracking open —like an eggshell — became less fearful.
He always wondered what Dr. Skinner had said to the StarHall administration. They gave him a second chance even though the ringleader of their clique had been expelled.
The class bully’s older brother was now a successful lawyer in Chicago. Kochanski had warned him, “I know you guys were all in StarHall together. But we’re on opposite sides of the Chicago River, Jim Sichet and I — lots of dead bodies have floated in there.”
His old girlfriend 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 human abilities to comprehend.
“And they watch us,” she said, “under their microscopes and pitch us into the trash when they are done.”
Married now with kids, he saw her name in the author lists of scientific journals. Max, her dog, their last connection, had passed away, and they hadn’t spoken since.
He 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 him that a tear in his universe could also reveal unknown evils. Like a spider in the darkness — not self-aware — Kochanski appeared to be 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.
He 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 base, they had taken away his two guns at the entry checkpoint. Because he had traveled to Saburia on a private jet, he never thought his firearms would be an issue.
Returning his weapons to him when he departed, an awed guard said, “Dr. Campbell, in America, you can carry these around?”
But this time, he had left his firearms —and any amazement they might create — at home.
Black Shadows abruptly opened again on his screen; 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.