The Shangri-La Affair
By Lavie Tidhar
26 January 2009
Part 2 of 2
The sky was red like watered blood, like Coca-Cola. The explosions shook the plane, and the smoke burned his eyes, worked its way into his mouth, suffocating him, the mask and goggles doing little to prevent it. The clouds were an acid-yellow, he could see no ground. It felt like floating in a see of emeralds and rubies, and Rick was blasting out music through hidden speakers, whether it was his own version of Apocalypse Now or a sort of code he didn't know: Rick was playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
But the boat was a toy plane, and the river was made of molecules of air, not water, and he had a fervent desire not to meet the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, because he had a feeling he really, really wouldn't like to look into them.
The plane swooped and swerved. "Who's shooting at us?" he shouted, not that Rick could hear him. But Phitsamai did.
"Everyone!" she shouted back.
They flew from the same airfield he had landed in on the way in to Laos. The same pilots sat in the same bar and seemed not to have moved at all. The same Hong Kong movie was playing in the background. The same conversations were taking place. He heard them mention Shangri-La while he waited. He listened and worried.
"Heard the Tamil Tigers got it," someone said.
"No way did it make it to Sri Lanka," someone else said, and laughed—not a pleasant sound. "Besides, you would have noticed if it did."
"Heard it was going West—"
"There was going to be an auction for it in Hong Kong—"
"I heard it was Kuala Lumpur—"
"What difference does it make? It doesn't exist. It's, like, an urban legend."
"Fairy tale?" someone else offered. There was a short silence. A small man who may have been Malay-Chinese said, "I heard Colonel Wu'd got it." The silence became pained. "And he was shipping it here."
"You should talk to Ricky about that," someone murmured, and the conversation changed, as if by an unspoken agreement.
You should talk to Ricky about that, he thought, as explosions shook the small plane and Ricky's blaring speakers changed to playing the Beatles, Across the Universe. His teeth rattled and he clamped them hard, his hand in Phitsamai's, and he thought of Colonel Wu and wasn't reassured. He knew three things that the pilots didn't. One: Shangri-La was real. Two: it was now in the hands of a man who wanted only to be rid of it, ideally while making money in the process, and—Three—that man was the Captain Hook of South East Asia. Colonel Michael Wu, born in Hong Kong, educated in Oxford, called the Clockwork Boss but never to his face. He had served in half a dozen conflicts before losing a hand and an eye and part of a leg, and going into private practice.
"Wu's in Long Cheng," Phitsamai told him. "He will wait for you there. He does not want Shangri-La any more than you do."
And so, this flight inland, and he felt like some old-time missionary travelling into the unknown, though he was not here to convert anyone, not even corrupt; mainly to prevent what his masters back home called "an unfortunate probability of immobility—" immobility being that year's big buzzword for "peace."
When Shangri-La disappeared, taking its unfortunate inventors with it, no one at first noticed. Then came the rumours . . .
From the border region of Myanmar and China, for instance, where a sudden lull in fighting brought unreliable reports of former enemies sitting together around a fire, roasting meat and sharing a Russian Baltika . . . from Cambodia, where Khmer partisan-bandits suddenly disbanded, and released a hastily-worded press release calling for world peace and an end to violence . . . from Malaysia, where Indians and Malay, facing each other in the midst of a demonstration which had threatened to turn violent, had suddenly dropped placards and staves and embraced each other, a picture of which even made it onto CNN on a quiet news day . . . alarming sights: as if the nameless drugs cartel, realising what it was they had, had carefully sent samples to potential buyers who then, not quite as carefully, tested them. And after that, for a time—nothing.
"Shit," Rick said, and he could hear him even through the explosions and the blaring Beatles music, so Rick must have been screaming loud enough to penetrate. He looked out and saw what Rick saw and he said, "Shit!"
"Shit shit shit shit shit!" Rick was firing now, the rat-tat-tat of guns doing nothing, and below them the shooting had stopped, and when Rick, too, stopped it became very quiet. The music died. Flying alongside them, one on each side of the plane, were Dragon Boyz.
They were enormous. He had seen pictures of them before, seen DNA analysis, X-rays, dissection videos, but reality captured their essence in a way video couldn't. They were like human bodies that had been stretched and filled, like the corpses Dr. Gunter Von Hagen used to play with before he became a corpse himself, the sort of human sculptures the Von Hagen Cult continued to make, and to worship: they were three times the size of a man and winged, great jewelled things spread out, the tips like knife-points, the heads strangely-human on elongated, swan-like necks. Dragon Boyz. They turned to face the tiny plane, one on either side, and they smiled. Their faces were vaguely Asiatic; they might have once been Chinese. Now they were barely human.
"Our escort!" Phitsamai shouted beside him. He nodded. He did not feel reassured. In the distance he thought he could see a flock of Ravenz, dark shapes, human-bird hybrids, carrion-eaters and mean. He shuddered. The plane dipped. "Going down," he whispered, to himself.
They went down.
They came to a stop on the great runway of Long Cheng. The two Dragon Boyz landed on either side of them. Ravenz circled overhead, screaming in a harsh language that was half gutter-Mandarin, half bird. He climbed out of the plane, feeling shaken. Phitsamai came and stood beside him. Neither spoke. Rick remained inside.
"Welcome to Long Cheng," someone said. The voice was pleasant, cultured, a British voice with just that hint of otherness. It boomed across the tarmac easily, a thunder-roll, but a polite one.
The Clockwork Boss. Michael Wu, Colonel Wu, had half the body of a man. The other . . .
One-half of his head was a mask of wrought silver. A complex pattern of emeralds and rubies ran like interwoven scars alongside it. His eye was a digital lens. Below, the mouth remained normal. Below that, one arm was a shiny metallic appendage; despite the other name they called him there was no hook on the end. Rather, there were strangely organic silver feelers emanating from it, writhing on the end of his arm like tentacles. His leg was a metal pipe with hundreds of tiny canon-like protrusions. It rotated as he walked. He came close to them and stopped. When he bowed it was done gracefully. "Ms. Phitsamai. It is a pleasure to see you again."
His human eye seemed to twinkle. Colonel Wu turned to him. "Are you the man who came to buy peace?" he said.
"Are there more than one?"
The Colonel seemed to consider the question. The Dragon Boyz were motionless beside the plane. "Many wish to purchase peace," the Clockwork Boss said. "And too many would like to keep it."
"Then I think we understand each other," he said, and Colonel Wu nodded. "Indeed. Follow me."
They followed him down the runway. He saw jeeps but no transportation was offered. The Colonel walked fast, his leg spinning, the tiny gun-turrets swivelling this way and that. There were other Dragon Boyz, military planes from the last century, a working zeppelin (there was no trace of the broken one he had seen in the photos), and darting amidst unmarked crates of cargo, black-dressed, cowled figures, who seemed to watch his every step: the Klan Klandestine, the new spooks, part triad, part monk, and a whole lot (if the stories could be trusted) of engineered nastiness.
"Do not worry about the Klan," Colonel Wu said as if reading his mind. "They are merely watchers. Mostly. They like to watch." And he laughed, the sound of a tea-party laugh, genial and expansive: it froze the blood in one's veins.
The building Colonel Wu took them to was made of a black material he didn't recognise. There was something unwholesome about it, something faintly organic, like flesh where the blood had congealed. The slide-doors, however, were glass and opened without sound, and the inside was air-conditioned and soft muzak played, though it could not quite conceal a beat that seemed to reverberate through the room like a cold, slow heart.
The two Dragon Boyz had followed behind. Now they positioned themselves outside the doors. The room was sparsely furnished. There were parchment scrolls with Chinese writing on the walls, and he recognised them as the paper money people burned at a funeral: death money, to accompany a departing spirit to the underworld.
"Please, sit," Colonel Wu said. They sat. Colonel Wu disappeared, and returned with a bulky, metallic briefcase. He opened it. Inside were rows and rows of gleaming vials. He stared at it. The Colonel nodded.
"This case," Colonel Wu said, "represents the entirety of the existing product. I understand the samples have been . . . exhausted."
"That is my understanding also," he said.
"Good. It would be a terrible thing to let loose."
"Such is also my masters' feeling on the subject."
"Of course," Colonel Wu said, and he smiled, and his teeth were very white. "And your . . . masters . . . they are committed to following the correct course of action?"
"It will be done as soon as it is in my hands," he said. "Though it would help if I had a suitably large empty area of land for the, um, disposal."
Phitsamai looked at him sharply. He ignored her. Colonel Wu smiled and his fingers made an ancient gesture. "So," he said. "In the words of that most ancient and venerable American Mandarin, Mr. Cameron Crowe—show me the money."
The first indication that things were not going according to plan came when they walked back across the runway and the bi-plane, complete with its pilot, whose name was Richard, or John, or Enrique depending on the place and the day of the week—but call me Rick—exploded.
A ball of flame rose over the tarmac, and in the skies above the Ravenz crowed and jeered and veered in all directions, an explosion of dark birds mirroring the bright one below. He said, "What the—" and felt Phitsamai grab his hand. She looked frightened. In his other hand he held Shangri-La.
They both turned simultaneously and the second indication of a plan gone wrong came when Colonel Wu, with a mildly surprised expression on his face, disintegrated into a cloud of dust and shrapnel.
"We're being shelled!"
They ran. The cowled figures that were the Klan Klandestine were running too, in the same direction. They were ninja-like. They ran silently. There were hundreds of them.
"Take the jeep!"
The vehicle was unoccupied.
They occupied it.
He hot-wired without conscious thought, hacking the simple brain with the digital key embedded in his thumb, the one that was meant for other uses. The jeep roared into life. He found a gun inside and took it. They sped down the runway towards the distant gates. So much for Nuevo Air Amerika, he thought. And so much for that quarter-million in US cash backed against Hong Kong Mining. Guess Rick's spending days are over.
They got to the gates. The gates were open. The Klan Klandestine were standing in perfect formation before it. Ravenz circled overhead. Dragon Boyz flew high. Through the gate: limestone peaks and burning watchtowers, and coming over the horizon to descend into the valley below: an army.
Who were they? The competition, he thought, but that didn't give clarity: it could have been anyone who thought peace was more profitable than war. He revved the jeep, but there was nowhere to go. The army ahead was gaining ground rapidly. Unmarked vehicles: tanks, artillery, battle-trucks. They were shelling Long Cheng. Fighter-planes surges overhead, met the waiting Dragon Boyz. He stilled the jeep, thinking. Phitsamai was quiet beside him. He watched a Dragon Boy grapple with a jet, landing on top of it, long snake-like arms fastening around the jet's belly. Two more jets came, firing. The Dragon Boy twisted, his body racked with bullets. Still he held on. A cloud of Ravenz surged onto the oncoming planes, suicidal bird-men aiming for the engines: one was sucked inside the whirlpool of the jet and was shredded, and the plane itself shuddered and bled black smoke. Ahead, the ground troops came, and the Klan Klandestine waited in perfect stillness. What were they? Hafmek? Genetic experiments gone wrong? He watched the advancing army and saw the first row of soldiers and froze.
They were dolls.
Dolls still dressed in factory-default mini-skirts and fuck-me pants and see-thru tank-tops. Dolls with machine guns in their manicured hands. Dolls with bands of grenades across their factory-perfect chests. Moving without passion, without remorse, across the ragged landscape to the gates of the Secret City.
The bombing continued, but it was sporadic, aimed. They couldn't risk destroying Shangri-La, he thought. And so—the ground invasion.
Laos was full of bombs. During the years of the Secret War the Americans riddled the landscape with two million tons of ordnance, exploded and otherwise. The WDU-4, for instance, containing six-thousand metal darts: when exploded it would literally nail people to the ground. Other cluster bombs: the CBU-41, filled with napalm; the CBU-89, dispersing mines; Honest John, containing 368 canisters filled with sarin nerve gas, one for every day of the year and three extra for leap years. Many of the bombs, unexploded ordnance, remained on and under ground, waiting.
The approaching army of peace merely added some new ones to the existing pile.
He watched as the Klan Klandestine uncowled. Their black robes fell to the ground. Underneath, they were . . .
The Klan Klandestine were spooks.
Transparent tubing, bodies re-moulded in plastic and diamond nanotubes, with light pulsing through them as micro-processors scattered like fungus across their bodies communicated with each other. They were the ultimate observers, but they could also kill. They did so now.
Spooks and dolls met. The spooks were light, burning, decimating. The dolls melted under their gaze.
The dolls were fists and bullets and shattering force. The spooks came apart under their attack, fracturing, fragmenting, breaking. There were few humans in this battle, so far.
He was counting on humans. And so he waited. There was nothing else to do.
And he wondered as he did so. And he held Phitsamai's hand.
In the sky a Dragon Boy fell, taking a jet in his arms like a lover. Ravenz scattered before gunfire. The battle went on. The dolls' numbers dropped and continued to drop. So did the spooks,' but he wasn't worried about them. They were still human, just.
Phitsamai stirred beside him. "What will you do now?" she said.
He turned to her. He was smiling, and it was a sad smile. "You were waiting for me," he said. "The product made its way to Wu, and once in his hands it disappeared into the bowels of Long Cheng. You knew you couldn't buy it, and you couldn't take it by force. You needed a . . . a hook. Ha." He thought of the Clockwork Boss and shuddered. "Something to draw it out again so you could get it." He looked into her eyes. She had beautiful eyes. "Me," he said.
She was silent.
"You want peace?" he said. "This sort of peace? A viral, non-negotiable, non-thinking peace? This isn't peace, it's bondage."
"Man with no name," she said, and she too smiled, wistfully it seemed to him then. And then, softly: "What do you know about war?"
The dolls were nearly all gone. Behind them came the human army, at last. The spooks still stood, the Dragon Boyz still flew, and so did the Ravenz, though they were few in number. He laid down the case on the ground. It clicked open with a soft sound. Vials of product gleamed inside.
"What are you doing?" she said, and for the first time she looked truly afraid, and he laughed, and hated himself for doing so. "Giving you peace," he said.
He took out the gun from the jeep. "Please!" she said. "Don't—"
Fifty-sixty percent success rate, transmission by air, he thought. The only problem was that he himself would be affected. He realised he would never now get paid. But he was, he realised, more like Rick in a way. They both did the things they did not for money or ideology or even hate. They did them because to do anything else was unthinkable. You could call it kicks, but it wasn't that. Not exactly. Pride in a job well done, perhaps.
He put his thumb in his mouth and bit it, hard, breaking it. Phitsamai took a step back. Then she had a gun in her hand. "Don't," she said.
"Too late," he whispered, his mouth bloody, and he spat out the stump of his thumb. The small transponder had already triangulated his position through the satellite network, and the strike was initiated even as they spoke.
She was going to shoot him but it really was too late. He shot first, not her but the open case, and the vials shattered and broke and an odourless flavourless vapour rose into the air and scattered to the winds.
She lowered her gun just as he was lowering his. A sense of tranquillity settled over him. Gradually, silence spread all over the valley. Tanks stopped and soldiers came out of them. The spooks let their arms drop to their sides. The Dragon Boyz flew leisurely through the air and came to land amongst the invaders, and the soldiers welcomed them. He felt happy, at peace for the first time in his life. He came to Phitsamai and held her, burying his face in her neck, breathing in her scent which was of smoke and dust and ginger and for the first time in his life he said, "I love you."
The explosion was nuclear, which was forbidden by every international treaty ever signed. That year babies were born without legs, or arms, or eyes, depending on the way the wind blew. The city of Long Cheng and much of the surrounding countryside was wiped off the continent like a drawing being erased on a blackboard. In later years they told stories about the secret valley of Shangri-La, and many went to find it, and most never came back. The war ended, eventually, as all wars must. And in parts of Laos they still tell the story of the nameless man who sought to buy peace only to destroy it, for it was told that he said that a peace without choice was no peace at all, but whether he was right, or whether he was talking out of his ass, was a theological question much discussed around the beer halls and in the temples of Vientiane.
Shangri-La was never found. And men still fight, and die, and the pilots still meet in the nameless airfield outside Vientiane and get drunk, and watch the same Hong Kong movie on the old TV, and when they get maudlin and there is no work to be done (but there is always work, war or no war) they raise a glass to a pilot whose name was Richard, or John, or Enrique depending on the place and the day of the week—but call me Rick.
The rain falls on a watermelon cart
Bamboo baskets breathe, inside
Caged frogs are granted hope