Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Mei — Brandy — looks down into black, still waters. There is no one else here on the hill, and all Mei can hear is the low rumble of trains in the distance, roaring and clanking over their road of iron, past the boggy rice paddies and moonlit orchards. One of them whistles in the distance, and Mei breathes deeply for a final time. She looks up to the stars, and feels a cool wind picking up. This is a beautiful time. Everything is clear. It has been for a while now. This is the best my life will ever be. This is it. She takes a step forward.
Only the snakes detect the fall. They sense the subtle vibrations through the ground as Mei slides into the well. And they go about their serpentine business, indifferent.
General Liu puts a match to the bowl of his pipe and gently draws a puff of English blend. He’s careful with these things: the delicate Irish pipe and the pouch of tobacco. They weren’t all that easy to get; PLA officers couldn’t very well be caught receiving packages from overseas, and he can obtain replacements only through the most circuitous of routes.
Cigarettes — Shuangxi, Furongwang, Baisha, 555, Philippines-made Marlboros — can be had with a trip to any corner store. Finding an officer who doesn’t smoke cigarettes and cigarettes alone would be a challenge. Still, the pipe isn’t an affectation; it’s a memento from the General’s years as a military attaché. And this little ritual — an offering to the Chinese gods of smoke, who were rarely short on offerings — gives him great solace. But even the wondrous powers of a cool-burning tobacco have their limits.
“Major, you were saying?”
“He’s already about to make a deal, we think. Someone saw foreigners — Americans, in all likelihood — leaving the compound.”
General Liu waves out his match and drops it in the ashtray. “Did you have ears on them?”
“Why not?” the General asks in an even tone, which makes his subordinate squirm, far more than he would be if the General Liu were yelling.
“We didn’t have time, sir. The house went up so quickly that we weren’t able to install anything in the frame, and the plasterers worked so quickly we couldn’t—”
General Liu nods, and Major Nie falls silent.
“Well,” the General takes in the room in all its official olive dreariness. He’d like to crack his knuckles, to shake the cold from his hands, but he doesn’t. Nie is too wound up already, and the General knows that getting clear, rational answers from a panicked man is an exercise in futility. Instead, the General switches hands, and lets the bowl of the pipe warm the colder one, and resumes: “That’s unfortunate. What else do we know?”
“He seems to be exporting quite a bit. We’re not certain how he’s managed to grow his market so quickly.”
General Liu raises an eyebrow. “Where? Where’s he exporting it?”
“Everywhere, sir. All over the globe.”
“Major,” the General offers a faint smile to soften the rebuke, “you’re not just an enlistee anymore. I expect a better answer than that.”
“Sir, sorry, sir,” Major Nie flips anxiously through the papers on his clipboard. “The United States, Russia, Pakistan, India, France, Britain, Mexico, and, of course, all throughout China. He doesn’t appear to have an international distributor yet. It’s just small packages so far, but a lot of them, and the volume is doubling weekly.”
“Interesting.” General Liu doesn’t drop his pipe, but he does let it hang loosely from his mouth. This is worse than I thought. He tries to look unconcerned. “And the chemistry? What did pharmacology say about the berries?”
Nie flips through the documents, hoping he didn’t miss something. He finds the text: “They say, and this is a quote, sir, ‘The compound resists all known methods of analysis. Samples have been forwarded to the Office of Agriculture. Additional data forthcoming’.”
“Excellent work,” says the General, and Nie, slightly less nervous than he was moments ago, lets out an audible sigh of relief.
Too many unknowns. The General shakes his head. I didn’t want it to come to this, but there’s nothing left to consider.
He turns back from his thoughts and notices that Major Nie is still seated, stock-still and uncomfortable. “You’re dismissed, Major Nie.” Major Nie, relieved, scurries out the door, quietly shutting it behind him.
The General picks up his phone.
“Yes, General Nie?” the clipped voice is unfailingly polite.
“Get me combat engineering.”
The Bodhisattva Guanyin
“Why did they do this? Why did they do this to our daughter?” The woman is crying hard, tears running down her cheeks and onto her overstuffed polyester jacket. Her husband sits beside her, mute. The blank expression on his face, a face darkened from years of ground-in coal dust, is more disconcerting than the woman’s weeping. The wife wipes away her tears on arm-warmers that can’t be doing much to counteract the damp and cold.
“We’re concerned, too, ma’am. We just don’t want to see anyone else hurt.” The American speaks slowly and stops, waiting for the interpreter to finish. “Can you tell us if she said anything? Did your daughter explain herself? Did she leave a note?”
“She said...” — the mother pauses, searching for the words — “she said—”
“It was all pointless! She couldn’t do any better! That’s what she said!” The man spits out his words with an intensity that startles the Americans. They look at each, wondering if they’re about to be kicked out, if they’ve violated a taboo. “What are you after? Why do you want to know?” The man isn’t looking off into space anymore. He’s staring at the Americans, disgusted.
Baxter is trying to think his way through this. He can’t lose this opportunity. Finding this couple cost him and the rest of the Americans a pretty penny. Finding another unfortunate couple... if there are others... What sounds credible? What would they believe?
“We’re concerned about... your—” and Baxter stops himself, watches the couple react to the translation. They’re not buying that one, and what business would the fate of these people be to me anyway? “I mean that we’re concerned about our fellow countrymen. My brother” — Baxter nods in the direction of Dwight D. — “is a doctor, specializing in drugs and addiction. We’re very concerned about what this might do—”
“It’s not a drug,” the man nearly barks at them.
“But my brother, the doctor—”
“Don’t you get it?”
“Get what?” Richard M., Dwight D., and the rest of the Americans don’t get it, whatever it is, and are starting to wonder about the skills of their interpreter. She seems competent, but...
“Truth?” asks Dwight D. He turns to the interpreter. “Truth serum?”
The coal miner ignores them. “There’s no mercy in the truth.” He glances at the little statue of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of mercy. “There’s no compassion, either. And everything our daughter said was right. It was absolutely true.”
The Americans are dumbfounded, save Baxter. He sees it now, what ties all these things together. And this stuff could — will — destroy them all.
“I’m not certain about that. We’re just concerned about our people. It could be—”
“NO! NO! NO!” The coal miner blurts it out in English with odd clarity, then resumes in Chinese, “You want us to help you destroy the truth? Is that it, foreigner?”
Baxter’s mind is rolling around his head. He’s getting hot. The room’s bare walls and particleboard furniture are starting to spin. Baxter places his hand to his chest, feeling his heart labor under stress and an unhealthy coating of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. This isn’t going to work. We’re finished. Then he throws his Hail-Mary pass. And why not? He has nothing left to lose. He tries to steady himself. Then: “Yes, that’s exactly what we want, sir. Will you help us?”
The miner doesn’t miss a beat.
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley