I dreamed this in Sihanoukville, a town of new casinos, narrow beaches, hot bushes with flowers that look like daffodils, and even now, after nine years of peace, stark ruined walls with gates that go nowhere.
In the dream, I get myself a wife. She’s beautiful, blonde, careworn.
She is not used to having a serious man with good intentions present himself to her on a beach. Her name is Agnete and she speaks with a Danish accent. She has four Asian children.
Their father had been studying permanently in Europe, married Agnete, and then “left,” which in this world can mean several things.
Agnete was an orphan herself and the only family she had was that of her Cambodian husband. So she came to Phnom Penh only to find that her in-laws did not want some strange woman they did not know and all those extra mouths to feed.
I meet the children. The youngest is Gerda, who cannot speak a word of Khmer. She’s tiny, as small as an infant though three years old, in a splotched pink dress and too much toy jewelry. She just stares, while her brothers play. She’s been picked up from everything she knows and thrown down into this hot, strange world in which people speak nonsense and the food burns your mouth.
I kneel down and try to say hello to her, first in German, and then in English. Hello, Gertie, hello, little girl. Hello. She blanks all language and sits like she’s sedated.
I feel so sad, I pick her up and hold her, and suddenly she buries her head in my shoulder. She falls asleep on me as I swing in a hammock and quietly explain myself to her mother. I am not married, I tell Agnete. I run the local casino.
Real men are not hard, just unafraid. If you are a man you say what is true, and if someone acts like a monkey, then maybe you punish them. To be a crook, you have to be straight. I sold guns for my boss and bought policemen, so he trusted me, so I ran security for him for years. He was one of the first to Go, and he sold his shares in the casino to me. Now it’s me who sits around the black lacquered table with the generals and Thai partners. I have a Lexus and a good income. I have ascended and become a man in every way but one. Now I need a family.
Across from Sihanoukville, all about the bay are tiny islands. On those islands, safe from thieves, glow the roofs where the Big Men live in Soriya-chic amid minarets, windmills, and solar panels. Between the islands hang white suspension footbridges. Distant people on bicycles move across them.
Somehow it’s now after the wedding. The children are now mine. We loll shaded in palm-leaf panel huts. Two of the boys play on a heap of old rubber inner tubes. Tharum with his goofy smile and sticky-out ears is long legged enough to run among them, plonking his feet down into the donut holes. Not to be outdone, his brother Sampul clambers over the things. Rith, the oldest, looks cool in a hammock, away with his earphones, pretending not to know us.
Gerda tugs at my hand until I let her go. Freed from the world of language and adults, she climbs up and over the swollen black tubes, sliding down sideways. She looks intent and does not laugh.
Her mother in a straw hat and sunglasses makes a thin, watery sunset smile.
Gerda and I go wading. All those islands shelter the bay, so the waves roll onto the shore child-sized, as warm and gentle as caresses. Gerda holds onto my hand and looks down at them, scowling in silence.
Alongside the beach is a grounded airliner, its wings cut away and neatly laid beside it. I take the kids there, and the boys run around inside it, screaming. Outside, Gerda and I look at the aircraft’s spirit house.
Someone witty has given the shrine tiny white wings.
The surrounding hills still have their forests; cumulonimbus clouds towering over them like clenched fists.
In the evening, thunder comes.
I look out from our high window and see flashes of light in the darkness. We live in one whole floor of my casino hotel. Each of the boys has his own suite. The end rooms have balconies, three of them, that run all across the front of the building with room enough for sofas and dining tables. We hang tubes full of pink sugar water for hummingbirds. In the mornings, the potted plants buzz with bees, and balls of seed lure the sarika bird that comes to sing its sweetest song.
In these last days, the gambling action is frenetic: Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Malays, they play baccarat mostly, but some prefer the one-armed bandits.
At the tables of my casino, elegant young women, handsome young men, and a couple of other genders besides, sit upright ready to deal, looking as alert and frightened as rabbits, especially if their table is empty. They are paid a percentage of the take. Some of them sleep with customers, too, but they’re good kids; they always send the money home. Do good, get good, we in Cambodia used to say. Now we say, twee akrow meen lay: Do bad, have money.
My casino is straight. My wheels turn true. No guns, says my sign. No animals, no children. Innocence must be protected. No cigarettes or powders. Those last two are marked by a skull-and-crossbones.
We have security but the powders don’t show up on any scan, so some of my customers come here to die. Most weekends, we find one, a body slumped over the table.
I guess some of them think it’s good to go out on a high. The Chinese are particularly susceptible. They love the theater of gambling, the tough-guy stance, the dance of the cigarette, the nudge of the eyebrow. You get dealt a good hand, you smile, you take one last sip of Courvoisier, then one sniff. You Go Down for good.
It’s another way for the winner to take all. For me, they are just a mess to clear up, another reason to keep the kids away.
Upstairs, we’ve finished eating and we can hear the shushing of the sea.
“Daddy,” Sampul asks me and the word thrums across my heart.
“Why are we all leaving?”
“We’re being invaded.”
So far, this has been a strange and beautiful dream, full of Buddhist monks in orange robes lined up at the one-armed bandits. But now it goes like a stupid kids’ TV show, except that in my dream, I’m living it, it’s real. As I speak, I can feel my own sad, damp breath.
“Aliens are coming,” I say and kiss him. “They are bringing many, many ships. We can see them now, at the edge of the solar system. They’ll be here in less than two years.”
He sighs and looks perturbed.
In this disrupted country two-thirds of everything is a delight, two-thirds of everything, iron nastiness. The numbers don’t add up, but it’s true.
“How do we know they’re bad?” he asks, his face puffy.
“Because the government says so and the government wouldn’t lie.”
His breath goes icy. “This government would.”
“Not all governments, not all of them all together.”
“So. Are we going to leave?”
He means leave again. They left Denmark to come here, and they are all of them sick of leaving.
“Yes, but we’ll all Go together, okay?”
Rith glowers at me from the sofa. “It’s all the fault of people like you.”
“I made the aliens?” I think smiling at him will make him see he is being silly.
He rolls his eyes. “There’s the comet?” he asks like I’ve forgotten something and shakes his head.
“Oh, the comet, yes, I forgot about the comet, there’s a comet coming, too. And global warming and big new diseases.”
He tuts. “The aliens sent the comet. If we’d had a space program we could meet them halfway and fight there. We could of had people living on Mars, to survive.”
“Why wouldn’t the aliens invade Mars, too?”
His voice goes smaller, he hunches even tighter over his game. “If we’d gone into space, we would of been immortal.”
My father was a drunk who left us; my mother died; I took care of my sisters. The regime made us move out of our shacks by the river to the countryside where there was no water, so that the generals could build their big hotels. We survived. I never saw a movie about aliens, I never had this dream of getting away to outer space. My dream was to become a man.
I look out over the Cambodian night, and fire and light dance about the sky like dragons at play. There’s a hissing sound. Wealth tumbles down in the form of rain.
Sampul is the youngest son and is a tough little guy. He thumps Rith, who’s fifteen years old, and both of them gang up on gangly Tharum. But tough-guy Sampul suddenly curls up next to me on the sofa as if he’s returning to the egg.
The thunder’s grief looks like rage. I sit and listen to the rain. Rith plays on, his headphones churning with the sound of stereophonic war.
Everything dies, even suns; even the universe dies and comes back.
We already are immortal.
Without us, the country people will finally have Cambodia back. The walled gardens will turn to vines. The water buffalo will wallow; the rustics will still keep the fields green with rice, as steam engines chortle past, puffing out gasps of cloud. Sampul once asked me if the trains made rain.
And if there are aliens, maybe they will treasure it, the Earth.
I may want to stay, but Agnete is determined to Go. She has already lost one husband to this nonsense. She will not lose anything else, certainly not her children. Anyway, it was all part of the deal.
I slip into bed next to her. “You’re very good with them,” she says and kisses my shoulder. “I knew you would be. Your people are so kind to children.”
“You don’t tell me that you love me,” I say.
“Give it time,” she says, finally.
That night lightning strikes the spirit house that shelters our neak ta. The house’s tiny golden spire is charred.
Gerda and I come down in the morning to give the spirit his bananas, and when she sees the ruin, her eyes boggle and she starts to scream and howl.
Agnete comes downstairs, and hugs and pets her, and says in English, “Oh, the pretty little house is broken.”
Agnete cannot possibly understand how catastrophic this is, or how baffling. The neak ta is the spirit of the hotel who protects us or rejects us. What does it mean when the sky itself strikes it? Does it mean the neak ta is angry and has deserted us? Does it mean the gods want us gone and have destroyed our protector?
Gerda stares in terror, and I am sure then that though she is wordless, Gerda has a Khmer soul.
Agnete looks at me over Gerda’s shoulder, and I’m wondering why she is being so disconnected when she says, “The papers have come through.”
That means we will sail to Singapore within the week.
I’ve already sold the casino. There is no one I trust. I go downstairs and hand over the keys to all my guns to Sreang, who I know will stay on as security at least for a while.
That night after the children are asleep, Agnete and I have the most terrifying argument. She throws things; she hits me; she thinks I’m saying that I want to desert them; I cannot make her listen or understand.
“Neak ta? Neak ta, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I think we should go by road.”
“We don’t have time! There’s the date, there’s the booking! What are you trying to do?” She is panicked, desperate; her mouth ringed with thin strings of muscle, her neck straining.
I have to go and find a monk. I give him a huge sum of money to earn merit, and I ask him to chant for us. I ask him to bless our luggage and at a distance bless the boat that we will sail in. I swallow fear like thin, sour spit. I order ahead, food for Pchum Ben, so that he can eat it, and act as mediary so that I can feed my dead. I look at him. He smiles. He is a man without guns without modernity without family to help him. For just a moment I envy him.
I await disaster, sure that the loss of our neak ta bodes great ill; I fear that the boat will be swamped at sea.
But I’m wrong.
Dolphins swim ahead of our prow, leaping out of the water. We trawl behind us for fish and haul up tuna, turbot, sea snakes and turtles. I can assure you that flying fish really do fly—they soar over our heads at night, right across the boat like giant mosquitoes.
No one gets seasick; there are no storms; we navigate directly. It is as though the sea has made peace with us. Let them be, we have lost them, they are going.
We are Cambodians. We are good at sleeping in hammocks and just talking. We trade jokes and insults and innuendo, sometimes in verse, and we play music, cards, and bah angkunh, a game of nuts. Gerda joins in the game and I can see the other kids let her win. She squeals with delight, and reaches down between the slats to find a nut that has fallen through.
All the passengers hug and help take care of the children. We cook on little stoves, frying in woks. Albatrosses rest on our rigging. Gerda still won’t speak, so I cuddle her all night long, murmuring. Kynom ch’mooah Channarith. Oun ch’mooah ay?
I am your new father.
Once in the night, something huge in the water vents, just beside us.
The stars themselves seem to have come back like the fish, so distant and high, cold and pure. No wonder we are greedy for them, just as we are greedy for diamonds. If we could, we would strip-mine the universe, but instead we strip-mine ourselves.
We land at Sentosa. Its resort beaches are now swallowed by the sea, but its slopes sprout temporary, cantilevered accommodation. The sides of the buildings spread downward like sheltering batwings behind the plastic quays that walk us directly to the hillside.
Singapore’s latest growth industry.
The living dead about to be entombed, we march from the boats along the top of pontoons. Bobbing and smooth-surfaced, the quays are treacherous. We slip and catch each other before we fall. There are no old people among us, but we all walk as if aged, stiff-kneed and unbalanced.
But I am relieved; the island still burgeons with trees. We take a jungle path, through humid stillness, to the north shore, where we face the Lion City.
Singapore towers over the harbor. Its giant versions of Angkor Wat blaze with sunlight like daggers; its zigzag shoreline is ringed round with four hundred clippers amid a white forest of wind turbines. Up the sides of Mount Fraser, cluster the houses of rustics, made of wood and propped against the slope on stilts.
It had been raining during the day. I’d feared a storm, but now the sky is clear, gold and purple with even a touch of green. All along the line where trees give way to salt grasses, like stars going for a swim, fireflies shine.
Gerda’s eyes widen. She smiles and holds out a hand. I whisper the Khmer words for firefly: ampil ampayk.
We’re booked into one of the batwings. Only wild riches can buy a hotel room in Sentosa. A bottle of water is expensive enough.
Once inside, Agnete’s spirits improve, even sitting on folding metal beds with a hanging blanket for a partition. Her eyes glisten. She sits Gerda and Sampul on the knees of her crossed legs. “They have beautiful shopping malls Down There,” she says. “And Rith, technik, all the latest. Big screens. Billion, billion pixels.”
“They don’t call them pixels anymore, Mom.”
That night, Gerda starts to cry. Nothing can stop her. She wails and wails. Our friends from the boat turn over on their beds and groan. Two of the women sit with Agnete and offer sympathy. “Oh poor thing, she is ill.”
No, I think, she is broken-hearted. She writhes and twists in Agnete’s lap. Without words for it, I know why she is crying.
Agnete looks like she’s been punched in the face; she didn’t sleep well on the boat.
I say, “Darling, let me take her outside. You sleep.”
I coax Gerda up into my arms, but she fights me like a cat. Sssh sssh, Angel, sssh. But she’s not to be fooled. Somehow she senses what this is. I walk out of the refugee shelter and onto the dock that sighs underfoot. I’m standing there, holding her, looking up at the ghost of Singapore, listening to the whoop of the turbines overhead, hearing the slopping sound of water against the quay. I know that Gerda cannot be consoled.
Agnete thinks our people are kind because we smile. But we can also be cruel. It was cruel of Gerda’s father to leave her, knowing what might happen after he was gone. It was cruel to want to be missed that badly.
On the north shore, I can still see the towers defined only by their bioluminescence, in leopard-spot growths of blue, or gold-green, otherwise lost in a mist of human manufacture, smoke, and steam.
The skyscrapers are deserted now, unusable, for who can climb seventy stories? How strange they look; what drove us to make them? Why all across the world did we reach up so high? As if to escape the Earth, distance ourselves from the ground, and make a shiny new artifice of the world.
And there are the stars. They have always shone; they shine now just like they would shine on the deck of a starship, no nearer. There is the warm sea that gave us birth. There are the trees that turn sunlight into sugar for all of us to feed on.
Then overhead, giant starfish in the sky. I am at a loss, choy mae! What on Earth is that? They glow in layers, orange, red, green. Trailing after them in order come giant butterflies glowing blue and purple. Gerda coughs into silence and stares upward.
Cable cars. Cable cars strung from Mount Fraser, to the shore and on to Sentosa, glowing with decorative bioluminescence.
“Ampil ampayk,” I say again and for just moment, Gerda is still.
I don’t want to go. I want to stay here.
Then Gerda roars again, sounding like my heart.
The sound threatens to shred her throat. The sound is inconsolable. I rock her, shush her, kiss her, but nothing brings her peace.
You, too, Gerda, I think. You want to stay, too, don’t you? We are two of a kind.
For a moment, I want to run away together, Gerda and me, get across the straits to Johor Bahu, hide in the untended wilds of old palm-oil plantations.
But now we have no money to buy food or water.
I go still as the night whispers its suggestion.
I will not be cruel like her father. I can go into that warm sea and spread myself among the fishes to swim forever. And I can take you with me, Gerda. We can be still, and disappear into the Earth.
I hold her out as if offering her to the warm birthsea. And finally, Gerda sleeps, and I ask myself, will I do it? Can I take us back? Both of us?
Agnete touches my arm. “Oh, you got her to sleep! Thank you so much.” Her hand first on my shoulder, then around Gerda, taking her from me, and I can’t stop myself tugging back, and there is something alarmed, confused around her eyes. Then she gives her head a quick little shake, dismissing it.
I would rather be loved for my manliness than for my goodness. But I suppose it’s better than nothing and I know I will not escape. I know we will all Go Down.
The next day we march, numb and driven by something we do not understand.
For breakfast, we have Chinese porridge with roasted soya, nuts, spices, and egg. Our last day is brilliantly sunny. There are too many of us to all take the cable car. Economy class, we are given an intelligent trolley to guide us, carrying our luggage or our children. It whines along the bridge from Sentosa, giving us relentless tourist information about Raffles, independence in 1965, the Singapore miracle, the coolies who came as slaves but stayed to contribute so much to Singapore’s success.
The bridge takes us past an artificial island full of cargo, cranes, and wagons, and on the main shore by the quays is a squash of a market with noodle stalls, fish stalls, and stalls full of knives or dried lizards. Our route takes us up Mt. Fraser, through the trees. The monkeys pursue us, plucking bags of bananas from our hands, clambering up on our carts, trying to open our parcels. Rith throws rocks at them.
The dawn light falls in rays through the trees as if the Buddha himself was overhead, shedding radiance. Gerda toddles next me, her hand in mine. Suddenly she stoops over and holds something up. It is a scarab beetle, its shell a shimmering turquoise green, but ants are crawling out of it. I blow them away. “Oh, that is a treasure, Gerda. You hold onto it, okay?”
There will be nothing like it where we are going.
Then, looking something like a railway station, there is the Singapore terminal dug into the rock of the outcropping. It yawns wide open, to funnel us inside. The concrete is softened by a screen of branches sweeping along its face—very tasteful and traditional, I think, until I touch them and find that they are made of moldform.
This is Singapore, so everything is perfectly done. PAMPER YOURSELF, a sign says in ten different languages. BREATHE IN AN AIR OF LUXURY.
Beautiful concierges in blue-grey uniforms greet us. One of them asks, “Is this the Sonn family?” Her face is so pretty, like Gerda’s will be one day, a face of all nations, smiling and full of hope that something good can be done.
“I’m here to help you with check-in, and make sure you are comfortable and happy.” She bends down and looks into Gerda’s eyes but something in them makes her falter; the concierge’s smile seems to trip and stumble.
Nightmarishly, her lip gloss suddenly smears up and across her face like a wound. It feels as though Gerda has somehow cut her.
The concierge’s eyes are sad now. She gives Gerda a package printed with a clown’s face and colored balloons. Gerda holds the gift out from her upside-down and scowls at it.
The concierge has packages for all the children, to keep them quiet in line. The giftpacks match age and gender. Rith always says his gender is Geek, as a joke, but he does somehow get a Geek pack. They can analyze his clothes and brand names. I muse on how strange it is that Rith’s dad gave him the same name as mine, so that he is Rith and I am Channarith. He never calls me father. Agnete calls me Channa, infrequently.
The beautiful concierge takes our papers, and says that she will do all the needful. Our trolley says goodbye and whizzes after her, to check in our bags. I’m glad it’s gone. I hate its hushed and cheerful voice. I hate its Bugs Bunny baby face.
Other concierges move up and down the velvet-roped queues with little trolleys offering water, green tea, dragon fruit, or chardonnay.
However much we paid, when all is said and done, we are fodder to be processed. I know in my sinking heart that getting here is why Agnete married me. She needed the fare.
No one lied to us, not even ourselves. This is bigger than a lie; this is like an animal migration, this is all of us caught up in something about ourselves we do not understand, never knew.
Suddenly my heart says, firmly, There are no aliens.
Aliens are just the excuse. This is something we want to do, like building those skyscrapers. This is all a new kind of dream, a new kind of grief turned inward, but it’s not my dream, nor do I think that it’s Gerda’s. She is squeezing my hand too hard and I know she knows this thing that is beyond words.
“Agnete,” I say. “You and the boys go. I cannot. I don’t want this.”
Her face is sudden fury. “I knew you’d do this. Men always do this.”
“I didn’t use to be a man.”
“That makes no difference!” She snatches Gerda away from me, who starts to cry again. Gerda has been taken too many places, too suddenly, too firmly. “I knew there was something weird going on.” She glares at me as if she doesn’t know me, or is only seeing me for the first time. Gently she coaxes Gerda toward her, away from me. “The children are coming with me. All of the children. If you want to be blown up by aliens—”
“There are no aliens.”
Maybe she doesn’t hear me. “I have all the papers.” She means the papers that identify us, let us in our own front door, give us access to our bank accounts. All she holds is the hologrammed, eye-printed ticket. She makes a jagged, flinty correction: “They have all the papers. Gerda is my daughter, and they will favor me.” She’s already thinking custody battle, and she’s right, of course.
“There are no aliens.” I say it a third time. “There is no reason to do this.”
This time I get heard. There is a sound of breathing-out from all the people around me. A fat Tamil, sated maybe with blowing up other people, says, “What, you think all those governments lie? You’re just getting cold feet.”
Agnete focuses on me. “Go on. Get going if that’s what you want.” Her face has no love or tolerance in it.
“People need there to be aliens and so they all believe there are. But I don’t.”
Gerda is weeping in complete silence, though her face looks calm. I have never seen so much water come out of someone’s eyes; it pours as thick as bird’s nest soup. Agnete keeps her hands folded across Gerda’s chest and kisses the top of her head. What, does she think I’m going to steal Gerda?
Suddenly our concierge is kneeling down, cooing. She has a pink metal teddy bear in one hand, and it hisses as she uses it to inject Gerda.
“There! All happy now!” The concierge looks up at me with hatred. She gives Agnete our check-in notification, now perfumed and glowing. But not our ID papers. Those they keep, to keep us there, safe.
“Thank you,” says Agnete. Her jaw thrusts out at me.
The Tamil is smiling with rage. “You see that idiot? He got the little girl all afraid.”
“Fool can’t face the truth,” says a Cluster of networked Malay, all in unison.
I want to go back to the trees, like Tarzan, but that is a different drive, a different dream.
“Why are you stopping the rest of us trying to go, just because you don’t want to?” says a multigen, with a wide glassy grin. How on Earth does s/he think I could stop them doing anything? I can see s/he is making up for a lifetime of being disrespected. This intervention, though late and cowardly and stupid, gets the murmur of approval for which s/he yearns.
It is like cutting my heart at the root, but I know I cannot leave Gerda. I cannot leave her alone Down There. She must not be deserted a second time. They have doped her, drugged her, the world swims around her, her eyes are dim and crossed, but I fancy she is looking for me. And at the level of the singing blood in our veins, we understand each other.
I hang my head.
“So you’re staying,” says Agnete, her face pulled in several opposing directions, satisfaction, disappointment, anger, triumph, scorn.
“For Gerda, yes.”
Agnete’s face resolves itself into stone. She wanted maybe a declaration of love, after that scene? Gerda is limp and heavy and dangling down onto the floor.
“Maybe she’s lucky,” I say. “Maybe that injection killed her.”
The crowd has been listening for something to outrage them. “Did you hear what that man said?”
“What an idiot!”
“Hey, lady, you want a nicer guy for a husband, try me.”
“Did he say the little girl should be dead? Did you hear him say that?”
“Yeah, he said that the little baby should be dead!”
“Hey you, Pol Pot. Get out of line. We’re doing this to escape genocide, not take it with us.”
I feel distanced, calm. “I don’t think we have any idea what we are doing.”
Agnete grips the tickets and certificates of passage. She holds onto Gerda, and tries to hug the two younger boys. There is a bubble of spit coming out of Gerda’s mouth. The lift doors swivel open, all along the wall. Agnete starts forward. She has to drag Gerda with her.
“Let me carry her at least,” I say. Agnete ignores me. I trail after her.
Someone pushes me sideways as I shuffle. I ignore him.
And so I Go Down.
They take your ID and keep it. It is a safety measure to hold as many of humankind safely below as possible. I realize I will never see the sun again. No sunset cumulonimbus, no shushing of the sea, no schools of sardines swimming like veils of silver in clear water, no unreliable songbirds that may fail to appear, no more brown grass, no more dusty wild flowers unregarded by the roadside. No thunder to strike the neak ta, no chants at midnight, no smells of fish frying, no rice on the floor of the temple.
I am a son of Kambu. Kampuchea.
I slope into the elevator.
“Hey, Boss,” says a voice. The sound of it makes me unhappy before I recognize who it is. Ah yes, with his lucky mustache. It is someone who used to work in my hotel. My Embezzler. He looks delighted, pleased to see me. “Isn’t this great? Wait ’til you see it!”
“Yeah, great,” I murmur.
“Listen,” says an intervener to my little thief. “Nothing you can say will make this guy happy.”
“He’s a nice guy,” says the Embezzler. “I used to work for him. Didn’t I, Boss?”
This is my legacy thug, inherited from my boss. He embezzled his fare from me and disappeared, oh, two years ago. These people may think he’s a friend, but I bet he still has his stolen guns, in case there is trouble.
“Good to see you,” I lie. I know when I am outnumbered.
For some reason that makes him chuckle, and I can see his silver-outlined teeth. I am ashamed that this unpunished thief is now my only friend.
Agnete knows the story, sniffs and looks away. “I should have married a genetic man,” she murmurs.
Never, ever tread on someone else’s dream.
The lift is mirrored, and there are holograms of light as if we stood inside an infinite diamond, glistering all the way up to a blinding heaven. And dancing in the fire, brand names.
And above us, clear to the end and the beginning, the stars. The lift goes down.
Those stars have cost us dearly. All around me, the faces look up in unison.
Whole nations were bankrupted trying to get there, to dwarf stars and planets of methane ice. Arizona disappeared in an annihilation as matter and anti matter finally met, trying to build an engine. Massive junk still orbits half-assembled, and will one day fall. The saps who are left behind on Ground Zero will probably think it’s the comet.
But trying to build those self-contained starships taught us how to do this instead.
Earthside, you walk out of your door, you see birds fly. Just after the sun sets and the bushes bloom with bugs, you will see bats flitter, silhouetted as they neep. In hot afternoons the bees waver, heavy with pollen, and I swear even fishes fly. But nothing flies between the stars except energy. You wanna be converted into energy, like Arizona?
So we Go Down.
Instead of up.
“The first thing you will see is the main hall. That should cheer up you claustrophobics,” says my Embezzler. “It is the biggest open space we have in the Singapore facility. And as you will see, that’s damn big!” The travelers chuckle in appreciation. I wonder if they don’t pipe in some of that cheerful sound.
And poor Gerda, she will wake up for her second time in another new world. I fear it will be too much for her.
The lift walls turn like stiles, reflecting yet more light in shards, and we step out.
Ten stories of brand names go down in circles—polished marble floors, air-conditioning, little murmuring carts, robot pets that don’t poop, kids in the latest balloon shoes.
“What do you think of that!” the Malay Network demands of me. All its heads turn, including the women wearing modest headscarves.
“I think it looks like Kuala Lumpur on a rainy afternoon.”
The corridors of the emporia go off into infinity as well, as if you could shop all the way to Alpha Centauri. An illusion of course, like standing in a hall of mirrors.
It’s darn good, this technology, it fools the eye for all of thirty seconds.
To be fooled longer than that, you have to want to be fooled. At the end of the corridor, reaching out for somewhere beyond, distant and pure there only is only light.
We have remade the world.
Agnete looks worn. “I need a drink, where’s a bar?”
I need to be away, too, away from these people who know that I have a wife for whom my only value has now been spent.
Our little trolley finds us, calls our name enthusiastically, and advises us. In Ramlee Mall, level ten, Central Tower we have the choice of Bar Infinity, the Malacca Club (share the Maugham experience), British India, the Kuala Lumpur Tower View…
Agnete chooses the Seaside Pier; I cannot tell if out of kindness or irony.
I step inside the bar with its high ceiling and for just a moment, my heart leaps with hope. There is the sea, the islands, the bridges, the sails, the gulls, and the sunlight dancing. Wafts of sugar vapor inside the bar imitate sea mist, and the breathable sugar makes you high. At the other end of the bar is what looks like a giant orange orb (half of one, the other half is just reflected). People lounge on the brand-name sand (guaranteed to brush away and evaporate.) Fifty meters overhead, there is a virtual mirror that doubles distance so you can look up and see yourself from what appears to be a hundred meters up, as if you are flying. A Network on its collective back is busy spelling the word HOME with their bodies.
We sip martinis. Gerda still sleeps and I now fear she always will.
“So,” says Agnete, her voice suddenly catching up with her butt, and plonking down to Earth and relative calm. “Sorry about that back there. It was a tense moment for both of us. I have doubts, too. About coming here, I mean.”
She puts her hand on mine.
“I will always be so grateful to you,” she says and really means it. I play with one of her fingers. I seem to have purchased loyalty.
“Thank you,” I say, and I realize that she has lost mine.
She tries to bring love back by squeezing my hand. “I know you didn’t want to come. I know you came because of us.”
Even the boys know there is something radically wrong. Sampul and Tharum stare in silence, wide brown eyes. Did something similar happen with Dad number one?
Rith the eldest chortles with scorn. He needs to hate us so that he can fly the nest.
My heart is so sore I cannot speak.
“What will you do?” she asks. That sounds forlorn, so she then tries to sound perky. “Any ideas?”
“Open a casino,” I say, feeling deadly.
“Oh! Channa! What a wonderful idea, it’s just perfect!”
“Isn’t it? All those people with nothing to do.” Someplace they can bring their powder. I look out at the sea.
Rith rolls his eyes. Where is there for Rith to go from here? I wonder. I see that he, too, will have to destroy his inheritance. What will he do, drill the rock? Dive down into the lava? Or maybe out of pure rebellion, ascend to Earth again?
The drug wears off and Gerda awakes, but her eyes are calm and she takes an interest in the table and the food. She walks outside onto the mall floor, and suddenly squeals with laughter and runs to the railing to look out. She points at the glowing yellow sign with black ears and says“Disney.” She says all the brand names aloud, as if they are all old friends.
I was wrong. Gerda is at home here.
I can see myself wandering the whispering marble halls like a ghost, listening for something that is dead.
We go to our suite. It’s just like the damn casino, but there are no boats outside to push slivers of wood into your hands, no sand too hot for your feet. Cambodia has ceased to exist, for us.
Agnete is beside herself with delight. “What window do you want?”
I ask for downtown Phnom Penh. A forest of grey, streaked skyscrapers to the horizon. “In the rain,” I ask.
“Can’t we have something a bit more cheerful?”
“Sure. How about Tuol Sleng prison?”
I know she doesn’t want me. I know how to hurt her. I go for a walk.
Overhead in the dome is the Horsehead Nebula. Radiant, wonderful, deadly, thirty years to cross at the speed of light.
I go to the pharmacy. The pharmacist looks like a phony doctor in an ad. I ask, “Is…is there some way out?”
“You can go Earthside with no ID. People do. They end up living in huts on Sentosa. But that’s not what you mean, is it?”
I just shake my head. It’s like we’ve been edited to ensure that nothing disturbing actually gets said. He gives me a tiny white bag with blue lettering on it.
Instant, painless, like all my flopping guests at the casino.
“Not here,” he warns me. “You take it and go somewhere else, like the public toilets.”
Terrifyingly, the pack isn’t sealed properly. I’ve picked it up, I could have the dust of it on my hands; I don’t want to wipe them anywhere. What if one of the children licks it?
I know then I don’t want to die. I just want to go home, and always will. I am a son of Kambu, Kampuchea.
“Ah,” he says and looks pleased. “You know, the Buddha says that we must accept.”
“So why didn’t we accept the Earth?” I ask him.
The pharmacist in his white lab coat shrugs. “We always want something different.”
We always must move on and if we can’t leave home, it drives us mad.
Blocked and driven mad, we do something new.
There was one final phase to becoming a man. I remember my uncle.
The moment his children and his brother’s children were all somewhat grown, he left us to become a monk. That was how a man was completed, in the old days.
I stand with a merit bowl in front of the wat. I wear orange robes with a few others. Curiously enough, Rith has joined me. He thinks he has rebelled. People from Sri Lanka, Laos, Burma, and my own land give us food for their dead. We bless it and chant in Pali.
All component things are indeed transient.
They are of the nature of arising and decaying.
Having come into being, they cease to be.
The cessation of this process is bliss.
Uninvited he has come hither
He has departed hence without approval Even as he came, just so he went
What lamentation then could there be?
We got what we wanted. We always do, don’t we, as a species? One way or another.