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Phlon Xi
a short story by Paul Pinn

Choy has no idea of his precise location. His map is not accurate. This is no surprise to him. It is why he is in Phlon Xi.

Routine satellite surveillance by the Americans had noted inexplicable changes to the topography of the 50 sq. kms. of sparse jungle, shrubland and padi fields. And an absence of the settlers, survivors of the thirty thousand hilltribe refugees who had fled Myanmar, Yunnan, Laos and Thailand when the first true Marburg epidemic had swept eastwards from Pakistan a decade earlier. Most had died from the virus, or fallen victim to the merciless containment tactics of neighbouring countries. Of the few hundred who survived, half had crossed into Kampuchea, and after evading the Khmer Rouge, had finally stopped in Phlon Xi, sensing that the land held more than just the essence of their beliefs. To villagers in adjacent areas it was an uneasy place best avoided, and the arrival of Marburg survivors had quickly reinforced their opinions. Contact was non-existent.

In America the experts were baffled, more so when the satellite checked out okay. As the visuals began to deteriorate, so had feedback from acoustic probes dropped in the area a few years before, when a senior intelligence officer in the National Security Agency thought armed insurgents were using the area as a base. None had been, and after six months the probes had been deactivated. After their inactivity it came as no surprise that only fifteen percent still functioned, and within days the breezy rustlings and insect noises had splintered into white noise.

The experts wondered if counter-surveillance technology had found its way to Phlon Xi. If so, who had it? Armed insurgents, echoed the past. A drug warlord, others suggested. Military Intelligence took over on a need-to-know basis, co-ordination courtesy of the CIA.

From the USS Coyote, sailing lazy in the Gulf of Thailand, they flipped out an old stealth drone for a closer look. On the way it relayed instant everything as clear as crystal. When it reached Phlon Xi it sent back snowshowers. Seconds later it vanished from the Coyote's radar screen.

Next day, two cultural advisors at the American Embassy in Phnom Pénh set off in a rustbucket chopper for the 200-kms trip to Phlon Xi. Scrambled radio contact on fluctuating frequencies was maintained with the embassy - until the chopper developed a malfunction and crashed short of its destination.

Embarrassed, the Americans decided to approach the problem from a different direction. Three days later, from a US military training base for the Thais just outside Bangkok, a Special Forces unit of six men moved surreptitiously into Kampuchea. They were hard, professional, the best. They ran into a Khmer Rouge ambush and didn't survive.

The mystery of Phlon Xi continued to occupy many, including Major Kenneth Choy-Channon, desk-bound in an intelligence unit specialising in south-east Asia. He preferred data-gathering in the field than in an office, and when he heard that his superiors wanted to drop someone into Phlon Xi, he promptly volunteered.

His file was scrutinised; revealed a bloodline of Meo and Lahu with a trace of Yao, all of which had been nicely packaged in the form of a Thai mother, now dead. His father, retired, had been with the US Army. Choy spoke seven languages, most rooted in Meo-Yao and Tibeto-Burman linguistics. He had experienced covert combat conditions, and proven adept at maintaining undercover roles in hostile territory. He was forty-three, unmarried, with an IQ of 139. He was ideal.

What the file didn't reveal was that Choy had a secret yearning to be closer to his roots, and regarded theistic animism as less of a sham than Protestantism or Catholicism, and ultimately more respectful to the planet. To avoid career problems and the wrath of his father, he had always kept his feelings to himself, wishing on occasions that his mother was still alive: he felt sure she would have understood his profound discontent.

Choy was flown to a Thai Airforce base at Ubon Ratchathani in the east of the country. It was decided that he should drop straight into the middle of Phlon Xi, equipped with a computerised environmental monitor, constant-relay sight-sound communication equipment, and an electronic tag so his progress could be monitored by the CIA in Phnom Pénh and US Army Intelligence in Thailand. For his personal safety he would carry a Glock II 19-shot pistol, a 32-round Bullpup-V, and plenty of ammunition.

On his departure Choy felt like an astronaut leaving for a hostile planet. When he reached the drop zone he executed a HALO entry: high altitude jump, low opening chute release.

In Thailand his superiors watched blue sky and approaching shrubland on colour screens, speakers rushing with air. Forty-one metres from touch the screens snowed, the speakers hissed, and the tag went mute.

Choy buries the chute under a bush, scans the area with binocs, gives a running commentary on what he can see. There is no sign of significant life, not even a bird. He waits for receipt-confirmation from Thai HQ; receives only silence.

The radio checks out okay. He replays the vidcam recordings, one tiny screen flickering with blue sky, the other with approaching shrubland, both with snow. The audio rushes air into white noise. Further checks reveal that the vidcams and audio are operative but recording nothing, as though there is nothing to record. Same with the photocams, and the tag, its signal going nowhere, as if instantly absorbed.

Choy crouches in brown grass, sweat beading his face. An air report reads 37 C, humidity 82%, wind speed almost zero. The sun glares at him from the map, forcing him to squint. If anything can be believed, he has landed two klicks east of a bridge that crosses a river to a large village. His compass needle moves like the second hand of an old watch. His watch, a mix of old and new, has stopped at his drop time of 08.27. From the sun's position he guesses it must be close to nine. He stares at his hi-tech equipment, makes a decision, and shoves it all under a bush. Then he checks his survival pack, weapons, belt pouches, and moves west, green cotton combats hugging his skin. Now that he's here, he doesn't know how he feels. And in a detached sort of way, he doesn't really care.

Three hours later Choy doesn't know where he is. The map is useless. He is hiding in long grass beside a path. A path means people. He has been waiting an hour, but no one has walked by.

He decides to move parallel to the path, soon finds himself on it, the Bullpup hanging easy, his mind as drowsy as the day. Either side is shrubland. Up ahead a line of trees. In the distant south pale brown hills roll away into haze. To the north the shrubland goes on for ever. He follows the sun, his hair itching with heat and sweat.

The trees are teak, bark grey, leaves large and withered. Beyond them stand clumps of bamboo, tall and brown, small and green. Choy detects black dots moving between them. He hides in the trees, then darts out, shrub to shrub, heading for the largest clump of bamboo. The dots become people working in padi fields. A gentle breeze ripples their black shirts and trousers.

Choy licks his lips, wishing he could sit in a water-filled padi and cool off. Ten metres away, an old woman and girl push rice plants into mud with a smooth back-breaking rhythm. When directly in front of him they stop, look in his direction. He's sure they can't see him, yet they beckon him with wet hands, exchange words he can't catch, laugh, and resume their planting. It makes him feel more alone than he has ever felt in his life.

On impulse he crawls from the bamboo. He has counted sixteen people working three padi fields, and as he stands they turn as one and wave at him. When he catches himself waving back, he lowers his arm, feeling somehow foolish. They smile, turn back to their tasks.

Perplexed, Choy calls out to the woman and girl. They pause, turn, smile, carry on working. He shouts in every language he knows, and after every attempt to communicate they smile over their shoulders at him without straightening their backs, without ceasing their toil. He gives up, walks the padi fields, tries to communicate with the others. The result is the same. Frustrated, he rejoins the path, eats a ration, drinks from a water bottle, his weapons and pack irking him as the humidity increases, the gentle breeze stills, and the air crushes him with stagnancy.

This is not what he had expected or hoped for. He had established contact - of a sort - and it had resolved nothing; had been nothing in itself. He may as well have spoken to the trees, the bamboo, himself.

Shrubland persists. Signs of the river, like birds and insects, remain absent. The sun hovers, burning more fiercely. Choy's thoughts merge with the sweat trickling down his face and body. He is a soldier, looks like a soldier, yet the peasants acted as though he was no threat to them, or ever could be, weapons or no weapons. He stops, looks at the Bullpup, wonders if it works. When he fires several rounds into a bush, twigs and leaves fall, but the gunfire is muted, swallowed by the humidity. He pulls out the Glock, fires four times at a stunted tree, the sound oddly dull, and inspects the trunk to make sure the humidity hasn't also swallowed the bullets. All four have impacted.

Back on the path, Choy collects the spent shells and moves on. He walks for perhaps an hour before noticing a green wall far ahead. It stretches north and south endlessly, and at first he thinks it might be tall grass. As he moves closer he realises that it's a wall of bulrushes, taller than any he has ever seen. And they move.

He quickens his pace, eager for the coolness of a breeze. The baked dirt of the path becomes damp earth as he closes in. The river. It must be. He hurries on with renewed vigour until the path tapers into a thin line of thick mud, the bulrushes towering around him, swaying like cobras waiting for the right moment to strike.

He stops with a sudden unease, listens, takes a deep breath, grips the Bullpup and moves further into the bulrushes. Every half-minute he glances over his shoulder with the feeling that he's walking on the spot. Progress is made and lost as the bulrushes finally block the breeze, the air filling with earthy smells, the rot of vegetation. And then he slips, more from surprise than carelessness, for up ahead stand an old woman and an old man. Their appearance is sudden, with no warning, and he curses his lack of alertness. He aims the Bullpup at them, keeps moving, expecting to see others. No others appear and soon he is standing by the couple, their brown life-beaten faces wearing toothless smiles and happy eyes that shine with the knowledge of a million lifetimes.

With a gentle mime they invite him to eat with them. Down down, they gesture: dry earth, hut, food. Be our guest their eyes implore, but there is an uncomfortable starkness to their sincerity that makes him refuse, and laughing, they bid him farewell and slide off down an overgrown track that plunges deep into wet green blades that dwarf them.

A second before they vanish into the bulrushes, a second during which they think Choy is looking elsewhere, they turn to each other, their faces terrible maps of frightening sadness. Shocked, he stares after them, at the woman's baggy black trousers and white shirt, at the old man's thin frame and mud-stained clothes, at the sinister emptiness they leave behind as the giant rushes close behind them with a dry, odious sough.

He continues staring long after they have gone, his thoughts disturbed. They ignored the Bullpup. Didn't even look at it. What is it with these people, this land? He moves on, wondering if he should have broken the deadlock by going with them. When he sees the bulrushes part permanently and reveal a narrow bridge with railings, he is glad that he didn't.

The bridge begins fifty metres before a river, reaching out from a low cliff on which grows the bulrushes, steel supports holding it above the river bank. Elated, Choy stops and studies the area. His elation diminishes when he sees that the span of the bridge seems as endless as the length of the river. He pulls out his map, studies it, then throws it away. This is not the bridge that crosses the river. It is a different bridge that crosses an ocean. The bridge travels into a dreamy obscurity that shimmers like a heat haze. Beneath it ochre water barely moves, its unhealthy colour prompting a recall of the Marburg virus.

Coughing, sneezing, fever, rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea. Bleeding from eyes, pores and all orifices. Spread like flu. Death within two weeks. Caused by a worm-like micro-organism carried by monkeys. Origin unknown. No vaccine. No cure. First outbreak in 1967 in the labs of a pharmaceutical plant where monkeys were killed for the preparation of polio vaccines. The place: Marburg, Germany. Seven died. The second and third outbreaks occurred almost simultaneously in 1976 in Sudan (115 dead) and Zaire (190 dead), the latter country coming very close to having its borders sealed by the rest of the world. Next outbreak in December 1989, the US Army and Military Research Institute for Infectious Diseases moving into laboratories in a residential part of Reston, Virginia, and saturating them with lethal formaldehyde gas. Then Zaire again in 1995, followed by Uganda as the millennia met, and with the new century, the Asian epidemic. Marburg. Ebola Virus. Mutation. Paranoia and xenophobia. Intense fear. Desperate measures. And Kenneth Choy-Channon stands looking at what could be a Marburg sewer full of mutated worms that turn water yellow.

To his right huts of wood and thatch stand on short stilts by the river bank. One in particular catches his eye. On the side nearest him runs a low wattle fence enclosing a garden. In it lays the old woman and man, shirts peppered with red holes. Choy's stomach flips as he drops to one knee, brings the Bullpup to his chest, muzzle pointing down, up, south and north, east and west, round and round.

He looks over the railing and this time sees the woman and man smiling and waving at him. Catching his breath he lets the Bullpup swing by his side, grips the rail, holds it until his fingers ache and the two peasants fade into invisibility. What the-? And then the huts follow the peasants.

For a long time he sits staring at the mud, the bulrushes, the ochre water, seeking an answer to his unfinished question. The peasants' faces, as terrible maps of frightening sadness, haunt him.

They waved at me, like those in the padi fields. None showed fear or seemed to notice my weapons. He gets to his feet, licks sweat from his lips, moves along the bridge. Waving. Soon he is above the river, the lake, the ocean of ochre water that could claim and obliterate him as easily as a bullet, no trace ever to be found by anyone. Waving. His boots sound dully on the metal plates. The humidity crushes. The vast expanse of water emphasises his isolation, the bridge his only apparent hope. Faces and maps wrinkle together, slashing contours in paper-flesh, painting rivers and paths in innocent blood. Waving.

As the sun descends and catches his eyes, Choy stops and eats, drinks, tries to think positively. Ahead is only the bridge and water. When he looks back he sees the same. Despondent, he leans on a railing, looks down, the sluggish surface so close he could reach out and touch it. But no sign of life floats on it; not an insect, a leaf, a twig or scrap of litter. And no bubbles rise to its surface.

He straightens up. Is the river tidal? Initially the bridge had been high over the river; now it is almost touching it. Will it cover the bridge? He gazes around. On one side the water stretches to an horizon as broad as an ocean. On the other side it stretches to another horizon as broad as another ocean. A yellow haze permeates the air. A slight breeze whispers in his ears, perhaps nothing more than the sound of silence. Or the hush of ocean dreams. Nonsense, he thinks, shaking his head and wondering where the Coyote's stealth drone finished up.

Phlon Xi is like a dream equivalent of a black hole, and the name doesn't even translate into anything meaningful. Where is it? What is it? And what the hell were those peasants doing - waving, smiling, showing no fear, acting like they had nothing to lose, not even their lives?

Then it hit him. He thought they'd been greeting him, acknowledging him; instead they'd been doing the opposite - waving goodbye. Why?

He walks on, sensing not a military reason for being in Phlon Xi, but an ancestral one. Are his forefathers here, waiting for him? Rubbish. He grips the Bullpup, British, made under license in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and holds it close to his heart which belongs to a romantic past he never had, and never was. He knows this, but refuses to dwell on it, preferring instead to think that his soul belongs to the Sino-Tibetan shamans of ancient history; the Mon-Khmer shamans of a thousand years ago; the Meo-Yao pantheist-animists and Lahu Poo Chong exorcists of the previous century. And to the sick and starving refugees who had struggled the treacherous 1,500 kms down to Phlon Xi or had died in the attempt.

His eyes sting with tears. He rubs them dry. The last two peasants faded away as if I'd imagined it all, yet they had been real. I saw them, was close enough to touch them. He leans on a railing. The sun is low in the west, the sky a darker shade of yellow. Maybe they were ghosts. He looks around, sees no land. No one can be more alone than me. Here. Now. His shoulders sag with a sense of total futility as the sun touches the empty horizon and turns pear-shaped. He unclips his holster, watches the sun sink and vanish, and places a hand on the Glock.

Night! Something different - darkness, stars, and as dawn breaks, the sight of land, the end of the bridge. He moves on, the air darkening around him. He hears snatches of conversation, distant city din. Spices and sweet fruits tease his nose. Coconut and fresh fish settle on his tongue. Familiar cities, landscapes and coastlines materialise around him. Faces come and go. And his blood surges and he runs, a cool wind whipping his face into a fixed smile as his heart soars and he begins to laugh. But when night arrives it does so with a brightening of the sky as another sun rises from the east, and wipes away the images and sensations with a flood of light and heat.

Choy stops, scans endless yellow water, falls to his knees, beats his fists on the bridge. Then he curls up and cries for his mother; her mother; for the grandfather, aunts and uncles he never knew. For the cousins he had never heard about. The brothers and sisters he never had.

He cries for a very long time.

When he eventually sits up, light-headed from heat, embarrassed by weakness and angry with guilt, the sun is overhead. He stands uncertainly, curses, and kicks the Bullpup through the railings. At first it floats, then dissolves, streaking the ochre with black which thins until only ochre remains. Acid! He throws in the water bottle, watches it dissolve. On impulse he climbs through the railings and hangs upside down inspecting the underside of the bridge. The supports disappear into the river. Obviously not acid. He touches the water with a fingertip. It feels warm and does nothing to his finger. He brings a handful to his face. It smells of lemon, and tastes so good that he drinks six handfuls before climbing back to the walkway feeling unaccountably happy.

For a while he gazes around, feeling that a part of him understands the enigma that is Phlon Xi. When he looks both ways along the bridge a thought strikes him. If my soul has a future, then let it be with the souls of my ancestors. And he sits on a railing, pulls out the Glock, and puts the muzzle in his mouth.

A dull pop, a muffled splash, and the night Choy longed for comes with the stars and fireflies of the family he never knew; and flitting with them the spirits of the sun and moon, leaf and soil, air and water, beast and bird; and all around dance the fiery comets of the shamans, every space filled with the golden radiance of his mother. And Choy dissolves with divine deliverance, and laughs with them all in colours.

© Paul Pinn 1997, 2001.

This story first appeared in Paul's collection, Scattered Remains (Tanjen, 1997).

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