Ten years on. Memories came like ghosts; ghostly figures trudging wearily past a bombed out building along a snowy Sarajevo street, smoke drifting among the trees above a bloody ditch in Vietnam, the terror in a Russian prisoners eyes in a half lit basement in Kabul, the last time he’d seen Donna in that Paris airport, Emina and Adnan’s forgiving gaze as he died in Alan’s arms. These memories, they never fully left him, like an unending nightmare as real as the moment they’d happened. This road, he thought, this life was so long.
Alan was happy to be leaving Kuala Lumpur. There was a vibe, an restrained tension particularly to Americans on the street there. Not that it was anything specific Alan could point to, but rather something, a certain and palpable disdain hidden behind the eyes. People were dutiful, even hospitable in their perfunctory dealings, but for Americans especially there still remained a certain danger.
Alan let out a long breath and settled back into his business class seat. A beautiful young Malaysian flight attendant was there in a moment with a glass of sparkling water. Her thin brown face was smooth and perfect, as if she’d been sculpted. Each movement was precise and choreographed, and economical. Alan smiled casually as she set it down on the arm rest beside him. He cinched the seatbelt a bit smugly across his lap, almost smiling at the same thought he always had at this moment. The thin belt hardly was of any consequence if the plane slammed into a mountain or the ocean at three hundred miles per hour. It was just one of those odd musings cultivated after better than four decades practically living on aircraft, but that was the life of a correspondent. The thought that commercial flying was safer than any other form of transportation, especially a premiere airline like Eden.
Still, Alan had a sense of something. He couldn’t say exactly what it was, but it was dark and dangerous. It hung there like a spectre before him, torturing any pretense of a restive respite from the tension of the past several weeks. Alan had suffered such thoughts more times than he cared to recount spanning four decades of mankind’s conflicts and wars, but something was different this time. There was a tension growing through the weave of humanity. It was as if the ambient warming of the planet fed some deeper disturbance driving strife and poverty and desperation. Worse, that tension seemed about to peak and erupt with monumental cataclysm. Alan had felt it as the Berlin Wall came down at the end of the last century. What he felt now was something altogether larger and more terrible. It felt like inevitable calamity.
Alan shook away the thought, at least for the moment, and lifted the cool glass of water to his lips. From the window he watched as the ground crew pulled the equipment off the Eden Air Airbus A330. The withdrew, disappearing beyond the gate lights into the darkening Malaysian night. Passengers were still stacked up in the isles , scuffling back towards their seats. Kirby checked his watch and sighed. They would depart late.
There was a headline on the front page of the International Headline Tribune. Alan weighed the headline a moment. It was something about how House Republicans were outraged by budget cuts to the Pentagon. Below that was a story about concerns over Russian interference in the Ukraine vote. Further along Alan’s eyes paused on a shorter piece:
Militants Slash more than 100 in China
Alan skimmed the short piece, taking another sip of his water.
…in retaliation for government crackdowns against activists and seperatists in China’s largely Muslim Xinxiang province, militants attacked people with knives and swords, injuring 143 and killing 29…
Alan frowned with a sigh and stuffed the paper between the seat and bulkhead where he’d also tucked his phone and a bottle of water inside a small airline blanket.
He closed his eyes and thought about Hong Kong and the book. Kirby was working on a book about Edward Snowden, the whistleblower that had embarrassed the national Security Agency and the administration by releasing tens of thousands of classified documents to select journalists. The book had taken Kirby the better part of a hundred thousand miles, including a half dozen LeCarre-like visits to Snowden’s secret flat in Moscow. He was beat. While in better shape than men half his age, at sixty-eight, the schedule was more than daunting.
“I know you!” came a voice in thickly accented Australian. John looked up as a stock red-haired middle-aged man slid into the empty seat beside him. “Evan, uh…”
“Right,” Alan Kirby, right? I saw your interview with Edward Snowden on Al Jezeera in my hotel the other day.”
“Oh, well, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. I think he’s a traitor. Don’t you feel the least bit guilty enabling that sort of behavior?”
Alan looked at the man good and hard and thought that once he might have, at least verbally, ripped the guy apart. Instead, discretion for the moment was the better part of getting some rest.
“Have a good flight.”
“Hey, mate,” said the guy, suddenly apologetic, “no offense. Forget I said anything.”
“No worries,” Alan replied, finishing his water and closing his eyes again. Better to set the pace now and send the unequivocal statement that Alan wasn’t interested in conversation. He closed his eyes and turned towards the window, folding his arms as tightly as possible.
He let his thoughts drift away to quieter thoughts, ruminations and cherished moments only just aware as the plane taxied and then lifted off in short order into a cloudless and starry Malaysian sky.
Below Kuala Lumpur’s crowded and brightly lit city center fell away quickly. The A330 banked east over the mountains and the darkest interior of the island nation. From there they would pass just north of Dungun with its’ rocky beaches and out over the South China Sea, following the coast of Vietnam. In seven hours or so they’d land in Hong Kong. Kirby was already looking forward to a hot shower and a proper bed.