The Shangri-La Affair
By Lavie Tidhar
19 January 2009
Part 1 of 2
You told me to wait but the rain-clouds are gathering
Like a tribe of Hmong waiting for an Air America pickup.
My opium cargo is consumed. Poetry marks the landing-strip.
There is a belly-fat moon. There is the singing of frogs
like idols gathering before the pot, a coal-blackened god
who would consume them. Faith is like a red thread or a farmer's tan,
it marks you. I will wait. The plane might come, the pot might break.
Sok dee der, someone says with a rising tilting accent on the last.
Good luck: this answer is given to a departing person.
From London by jet-powered plane to Bangkok, a city crowded with war-curious thrill-seeking backpackers just far enough from the action to enjoy it; there to meet a shaggy-haired giant blond whose name was Richard, or John, or Enrique depending on the place and the day of the week; in a dark bar where ladyboys served drinks and flirted with the clientele. "We're the new Air America," Richard—but call me Rick—said. "Anything, anywhere, anytime. But non-government affiliated, see? Just like the Red Cross, or Oxfam. Another bourbon, please, Satien. Neat. And one for my friend here. He's paying—" and winked, and slapped the beautiful slim Thai boy on his behind, and said, "Nuevo Air Amerika: where do you want to go today?"
Hot morning, dry mouth, head hurting with the cheap drinks that will have to go in the column marked "expenses." The air already thick with heat, the traffic suffocating. "It's like there's no war," Rick said. "The Thais always knew how to keep house. A buffer state between the French and the English back when the old white boys were cutting up Asia, a cautious ally of the Yanks during the Vietnam War: old families, my man. Nobility shines through. So they gave some territories to the French back in the nineteenth, and gave the Americans aid back in the twentieth, but they kept their monarchy, held off communism, and if this new war wasn't going on they'd be . . . "
He droned on and his passenger nodded and felt sweat gathering on his eyebrows, making his face itch. His hangover was getting worse. He tried to place Rick's accent and found that he couldn't. A royalist. He'd see the dossier on the man, of course, but who could even tell what in it was true, if anything? War allowed for near-infinite fictions. He shrugged and closed his eyes, hoping he could get some sleep. Who cared. The man was a pilot, and a pilot was what he needed. And names were dangerous. He preferred to do without them.
The air-strip was an assemblage of shacks and hastily-constructed hangars. He sat and drank bad coffee made from a three-in-one sachet while Rick arranged the transportation. It was eight o'clock in the morning. "We'll have to leave in the afternoon," Rick said when he returned. "Wind, you know. Meanwhile, relax. Got a book to read?"
There were some Le Carrés and an Agatha Christie on a shelf beside the hot-water samovar. "I think I'm all right, actually," he said. Rick shrugged, the movement magnified in his oversized frame. "Suit yourself, man. Just stay here. I've got some business to attend to."
Old planes rusting in the sun . . . a microlight landed, the pilot small, wearing unidentified khaki overalls and helmet, removing a sack from the back seat—opium? Chinese software? It turned out to be rice. A group of men with large moustaches who looked vaguely Mongolian came and sat around, smoking and playing cards. Why was war always so much about waiting? A small blimp floated past, stopped, lowered a rope-ladder. He could see gun-turrets poking from its gondola. Two jeeps came, dislodged cargo, disappeared. By noon the sunlight was as thick as paste and his mouth tasted of coffee like bile.
At three-thirty Rick reappeared. "Get dressed," he said, throwing him a pair of overalls. He put them on, zipping them over himself, cursing. The heat inside the suit was suffocating. He followed Rick out of the hangar and felt like an astronaut walking on the moon in old NASA reels, when the Americans still thought they owned near-space by default.
"Get in. Try not to touch anything."
Was that drink on Rick's breath? He decided it was best not to ask. The craft looked like an old-fashioned biplane. Almost. The wings were sun-absorbers, a weave of solar receptacles etched into their frame. The body was painted sky-blue. It looked like an exceedingly cheerful children's toy. He sat in the back. Rick climbed into the front. The control panel instruments were needles in wood and glass. "Got to keep it simple," Rick shouted to him. "Can't give out a digital readout from this thing or we're fucked. Old-fashioned," he said cheerfully and strapped in. "Like me."
From above the land was flat, flat, an endless plane, the part of Thailand the tourists never came to, a horizontal expanse of small villages linked by dirt roads, no towns, no lights, very few cars. They flew low. He couldn't speak to Rick, there were no headsets, no radio either. He watched for troop movements, the gathering of tanks and artillery and massed units he knew should be there, but could see nothing. It looked peaceful and quiet and empty, the way he imagined it must have looked like for thousands of years, though he knew nearly every major war in the region passed through here at some point, on the way to better things.
The heat had been turned off. Up here he was glad for the overalls, feeling comfortably warm inside them. The wind whipped his face. He blinked behind the goggles. At some point Rick passed him a small bottle. Red Label, though not American. Local distillery's Johnny Walker knockoff, but not bad. He drank and didn't pass it back.
When they came on the Mekong it was evening and the light was disappearing fast. At this time of year the river was almost dry, sandbanks appearing like white spots between the banks. He couldn't see any boats. The plane swooped and flew lower and he tensed: they were crossing into Laos.
No one knew how the war started. That it was a regional conflict, everyone agreed. Some said it was Pakistan squaring up to India one last time. Others blamed the spill-out from the Afghan homelands. Others still said it was Chinese expansionism, or Vietnamese aggression, or even Mongolian dreams of a second empire. No one blamed the Thais, who as always trimmed sails and, to mix metaphors, sat by the sidelines, but a lot of people did blame the colonial forces, neo- or otherwise, for stirring the pot. All anyone knew for sure was that one day the region was ploughing along, growing rice, manufacturing software, formulating five-year plans—and the next, there was war.
It came spilling over Asia like grains of rice measured into a pan. Digital systems were corrupted. Tailor-made viruses swept through urban populations, spread out to villages, sometimes merely killing, sometimes transforming people into . . . into other things. Borders were closed, reserves were called, cheap uniforms were manufactured en masse in hundreds of air-conditioned sweat-shops. Vietnam, which for several years had the monopoly on doll technology, experimented with bionic soldiers. China made a counter-move with ray-based weaponry with smart chips that could detect one's genetic makeup before elimination. They called them Heinleinistas for no reason anyone could figure, but the Chinese always had too much regard for Western pulp fiction. India put out genetically-modified rice which caused unfortunate side-effects when digested. Numerous ethnic groups formed splinter militias and tried to claim independence in the political chaos. Tibetan overseas scientists tried to come up with a force-field shield that, had it been successful, would have effectively closed them off against China. It was not successful. And into the fray came the drifters, the mercenaries, the war-bloggers, the conflict-tourists, the NGOs and aid agencies, the intelligence community, and the intrepid politicians who rather fancied a Peace Prize and a place on the list with Nelson Mandela. Myanmar had become even more impenetrable than before. And Laos . . .
Laos was the crossroad.
They were shot at as they crossed over the Mekong but it was only conventional low-grade artillery and Rick avoided it, flying low and high and at sharp angles. Crossing the river the land was green and he could see palm trees below and they landed in a small strip where shirtless boys marked the runway with gasoline torches. Rick took off his helmet and wiped his face with a rag and grinned. "Welcome to Laos," he said.
There was an unofficial bar. A Hong Kong martial-arts movie was playing on a TV in the background. The place had its own generator. They had cold beer. The clientele was composed almost exclusively of drunk pilots. They seemed to be having a good time.
He ordered a beer and was grateful for its coolness. He thought of the road he still had to take. Getting here had been the easy part.
Vientiane was wide avenues and narrow lanes twisting out from them like arteries. Impressions of Vientiane like coloured slides flashing rapidly on a wall-screen: a temple with a life-sized Buddha standing guard, his face remarkably like that of a cat (the driver, when he asked him, saying, "No Buddha! Nyak! No same-same!"); in the open market Chinese black-market hardware and datasets, and an old woman with a terminal in front of her who, Rick told him, could predict the movement of troops across the whole of Asia. He'd watched as Rick went and knelt by the old woman and watched as she tapped keys, bangles clashing like cymbals on her arms, and she murmured something inaudible to Rick and made a gesture with her hand, and he saw money change hands, discreetly. In a backstreet off Sokpaluang he saw a doll's house and men in the waiting room sitting on carpets. There were three or four dolls that he could see, life-sized, stepping in graceful if slow motion, one with the features of a falang, a foreigner, two other Vietnamese, one Thai. The dolls' keeper was a dour-looking woman with screwdrivers in her shirt pocket. They ate in the nearby stall, Rick noisily slurping noodles, calling for more mak phed, more beerlao. Soldiers everywhere, but quiet. Like Bangkok, Vientiane was relatively stable. Enough for the war-tourists to come, the falangs with the right papers, the right connections. Not him, though he had them if he needed them. The problem had been about getting in, not about staying.
A tuk-tuk ride through darkened streets, the driver taking a short-cut through a temple, monks in orange robes staring, the tuk-tuk an electric golf-cart with solar panels on its back and sides, miniature wind-turbines spinning against the artificial wind, Thai pop blaring through unseen speakers. Motorbikes everywhere, running on expensive gasoline, on sugar-cane fuel, on batteries. And he, waiting, searching, going from one place to another, following the routine. A tourist, just another war-junkie, sitting in the cafés, drinking espresso, eating the baguettes that they called falang-bread here, reading the Vientiane Times to see only government-sponsored Happy Talk and so resorting to gossip, which was everywhere: that the Chinese were going for Japan, settling scores still left over from World War II; that the Malay were fighting India in the asteroid belt, mining craft ramming each other with loads only meant for the valuable rocks; that Tibet was a wasteland; that Myanmar was inoculating every citizen against propaganda with an RNA-based brain parasite; that a coup in Thailand was imminent; that Vietnam was forming an army of dolls to take on a Cambodian invasion; that the Russians were moving in—but no one believes the last one.
And all the while he went from place to place and he left the message, the pre-agreed code, and he checked the dead-letter boxes and he waited in his hotel room, and his piss smelled of coffee every time he went. And he waited, for who or what he didn't yet know.
Lao girl on bicycle
She is still. Beneath her the road rolls.
And that's how he first saw her, Phitsamai, Pit-saa Maai, not like pizza, she said, laughing, and that's how he always, afterwards, remembered her. Logos danced like snakes on the sides of the bicycle. The parasol was itself a small solar unit, gathering energy into a tiny battery at the handle. Phitsamai rang her bell twice, warning walkers of her right of way and after a lull rang it again, once. That sound, coupled with the parasol, was the signal he'd been waiting for. Phitsamai cycled down the road. He followed at a distance. She never looked back.
He found her at a drinks stand outside the old national library building, which had recently been converted into a refugee asylum. She had just sat down. He approached her.
"Excuse me, Miss," he said, hesitant, "Khor thod, khor thod—"
"Yes?" she said, in faultless English. The proprietress of the drinks stand, for whose benefit (and whatever other watchers there may be) this performance was conducted, gazed at them for a moment and turned away. "I believe you dropped this." He handed her the envelope. Her eyes opened wide. "I can't believe I was so foolish!" she said. "Thank you. It has my travel documents. They are very important. Please, sit down."
And so it went. He was taken by her even before that moment, their first together, even before he learned her name, or that she was half-Hmong, or that she had worked as an interpreter for the UNDP before the war. "And what is your name?" she said, arching her eyebrows (the proprietress had snorted but turned away—the scene she was witnessing was a familiar one, and showing disapproval got you nowhere). He thought, then said, "Call me Ishmael," which got him a laugh, at least. It was also a final verification, because he was there to land himself a whale, of sorts.
He had a name, of course. He had a passport, visa, international driving licence, this current set in the name of a John Brown, nationality Irish, the accent a kind of trans-Atlantic blur. He preferred Ishmael, and it became their joke.
They met again later that day, in a safehouse she told him to come to, near the 103 hospital on the old Friendship Lao-Thai Road.
"Can you get it?" he said. And, despite all the briefings, the confidential reports, the decoded information—"Is it real?"
She nodded, and she didn't look happy. "It's real," she said.
They called it Shangri-La. Its transmission mechanisms included sexual intercourse (99%-100%); it could also be transmitted by air (50%-60%), by water (30%-35%), through saliva (15%-20%) and by touch (5%-6%). It was not transferable by mosquitoes, but that was for aesthetic rather than technical reasons. It was developed by a group of scientists working on a UN-funded project in the Golden Triangle, on the border region of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The group, as it turned out, was receiving additional funds from a local drugs syndicate, and when first indications of the product began to surface the entire research station, alongside the village it was situated in, had simply disappeared. For a long time no one believed it really existed. Then came the rumours . . .
"Where is it?" he asked. He realised suddenly how little he knew. Even getting here was a gamble. "How much of it is there?" And a thought at the back of his head like a fly that wouldn't stop biting—can I trust her?
"What I saw was a briefcase," she said, and he reeled even as he expected it. "I'd estimate over a hundred vials, each enough to infect five to ten people by direct injection, with the percentage rising by a magnitude if you release the whole quantity in a city's water supply, or in the aircon systems of any number of large public buildings . . . "
"Where is it?" he said. Phitsamai sighed. She sat down on the narrow bed and he was suddenly aware of her nearness, and of the smell of her, which was of smoke and dust and ginger. "You are American?" she said.
"No . . . "
She smiled. "It is a shame."
She didn't answer. Instead she said, "Can you fly?"
"I have a pilot."
"Is he Nuevo Air Amerika?"
"I think so."
"Then maybe he could get you there. But it is very hard, very dangerous. And the people there are very nervous. I don't think you are the only one looking for Shangri La."
"I don't think so either," he agreed. He sat down beside her. "It's a dangerous game."
"It's not a game," she said quietly. And then, "Tell me. If you get hold of this thing—will you use it?"
She looked into his eyes. She saw the answer there and she smiled. "It is very dangerous," she said. "Yes. More dangerous than war."
When he found Rick again it was in a local bar on Sokpaluang again and he could spot him easily in the crowd. A yellow-painted, transparent plastic samovar rested on the table beside him, and it was full of beer. He slid onto a seat opposite the pilot. Rick grunted a hello and made a motion with his hand. "Another mug," he said, articulating slowly. When it came he said, "Drink."
They drank. "How are you liking Vientiane?" Rick said.
"Have a cigarette."
"No, thank you," he said. And then—"Long Cheng."
Rick splattered over his beer. "Ancient history, mate," he said. "Nothing there but Hmong, now." Which was bullshit. "Why do you come say Long Cheng to me?" Rick looked at him with a hurt look in his eyes. He still couldn't place his accent.
"Long Cheng," he said again. And, "Saisosombun Special Zone."
"Damn right it's special," Rick said. "And don't talk so loudly. You're upsetting the natives. You've already upset me."
"I'll just have to find someone else to do it."
Rick laughed. "Who?" he said, simply.
Long Cheng, Phitsamai had told him, was the base of operations for the Americans during their Secret War in Laos. It was the old CIA's own secret city. Ravens flew above it, the name given to the Air America operatives, and Air America was the CIA's own airline, the TWA of the clandestine services. By the time the Americans evacuated it was the second biggest city in Laos—not bad for a place which didn't officially exist.
"What happened after the Americans left?" he had asked. "Army held it," she said. "No one allowed in, no one allowed out. For many years this was so. The local Hmong people lived in the Special Zone, but the army held Long Cheng. And then . . . "
And then the war started. And the Special Zone returned to what it did best. Where before the Hmong fought the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao, and shipped heroin out and chickens and rice in, now there was a new war, and new intruders, and as the central government lost its hold on the provinces the minority tribes took to their new-found freedom with an austere sort of joy, and put out a lease. And the old secret city opened its gates again to a new brand of spook, and strangers were not, Phitsamai told him, tolerated. To come into the Zone unannounced, therefore, was to invite certain repercussions . . .
"It was old Air America," he said, insisting. "Didn't you say anything, anywhere, anytime? Well, this is anywhere, isn't it?"
He got the impression that, with Rick, it was mainly a matter of show. Like a medicine-merchant in the Morning Market of Vientiane, Rick needed to show reluctance to sell. Face, that's what they called it. He needed to coax Rick, show willing, let Rick settle into it. Well, he better make it pretty quick, he thought. There were other pilots.
But a dreamy look had come into Rick's eyes. "Shit," he said. "Long Cheng. It was ours, mate. Raven City. Nothing you couldn't get in Long Cheng, if you set your mind to it. If they let you in. But . . . "
"Dragon Boyz. Ravenz. The Klan Klandestine."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Rick stared at him. "You have files," he said, calmly. "They would have briefed you, before you left London or Zurich or wherever the fuck it is that you're from?"
They did have files. And through Phitsamai's contacts, on a secure satellite link-up, using a cheap use-once-and-destroy made-in-China comms kit, he talked to London or Zurich or Bonn, or wherever the fuck he was from, and they said to proceed, and sent him the files, and after he read them the comms-kit burned quietly into a ball of fused plastic.
Long Cheng, the Forbidden City. Satellite imagery showed him the ancient runway, 1.2km long; the cluster of hangars, storage areas, accommodation units; flying craft hovering like flies, not ravens, over the strangely organic accumulation of structures; below, trucks, motorbikes, jeeps, a couple of tanks, the remains of a burned-out zeppelin. And everywhere discreet tunnel mouths, for Long Cheng was a city built as much below as it was above. Gun turrets kept watch. Satellite dishes sprouted like mushrooms amidst limestone peaks.
And here and there, fleeting like shadows, the Dragon Boyz stalked, and the Klan Klandestine watched.
"So I saw the files," he said. He took a sip from the beer. It had lost its cool very quickly. He shrugged. "What I need is in Long Cheng. Now, can you get me there—or not?"
Rick laughed. Rick thought he was very funny. Rick's eyes were like giant moons swimming in cloudless sky. "Half a million in Malay Corp. Asteroid stock—"
"I can manage that—"
"And another quarter in U.S., cash, backed against Hong Kong Mining on return. I'm not greedy." From a pocket Rick materialised a black-comm. Square, cheap, hardy, of the same sort Phitsamai's people had provided for his own use earlier. "I'll need it transferred and verified now."
He smiled, and Rick smiled back, and it was settled. The money was transferred and verified, one end of the transaction in Sokpaluang, the other somewhere in the financial servers in Europe.
"You're on," Rick said.