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Authors: Gillian Anderson

A Vision of Fire

BOOK: A Vision of Fire
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ocking gently under the full moon, the Falkland Advanced Petroleum survey ship rested in the harbor at Stanley. Its hull was weather-beaten after three weeks at sea, its sensitive below-deck sensors were rattled by the relentless waves, and its chief geologist was exhausted.

But as he bent over the tiny lab table in his forward cabin, Dr. Sam Story could not stop staring at a rock the remote-controlled Deep Sea Grab Vehicle had pulled from a ledge on their last day in the South Atlantic. The silvery stone fit in his palm and was roughly the shape and thickness of a playing card. He had been studying it for more than an hour through a magnifying glass, slowly moving the lens up and down and side to side; the fifty-three-year-old geologist was finding it difficult to accept what he was seeing.

Finally, the man sat upright on the stool, blinked his tired eyes, and thumbed on a small audio recorder.

“Specimen E–thirty-three,” he intoned cautiously, “definitely appears to be a pallasite meteor fragment. And it is my observation that chipping marks on the back indicate it was hewn from the parent stone by hand. However . . .”

He gently set the stone on a cotton swath he'd placed on the table
and pulled off his latex gloves. The relic had been washed by frigid waters for centuries, perhaps millennia, and rough surfaces and body oils might cause further damage.

Dr. Story looked down at the stone again and studied the symbol that gently shone from it. “On the anterior façade is a carving of four triangular shapes arranged in a pyramid,” he recorded. “Each triangle is formed by three interlocking crescents, with small, extended crescents at the three corners. More of a claw or talon shape, actually, those small ones. No claws at the corners of the center triangle. I cannot begin to guess at the meaning or function of this.”

He bent low, peering at the stone. “Regarding process, the width and depth of the markings suggest they were carved by a smaller, finer tool than that which made the relic itself. While there existed any number of local tribes that could have cut these figures, the edges of the markings themselves are a real mystery.”

Picking up the magnifying glass again, he murmured, “Every side of every etching has a rounded perimeter that suggests eons of erosion. Yet these edges are not worn down uniformly but are built up, like blisters. Blisters like these could only be generated by intense heat, Class D at a minimum, and ancient peoples did not have the wherewithal to generate twenty-one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.”

Dr. Story sat upright, picked up the recorder, and grinned. The modern device felt strange and inconsequential in his hand. This relatively sophisticated by-product of human invention was dramatically less interesting than a simple stone pulled by chance from the ocean.

, he corrected himself,
this is not simple
. Volcanic magma could reach that level of heat, but even that was uncommon. By the time lava reached the surface, it was closer to fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. He had only seen this kind of melting and hardening on meteoric rocks that softened and bubbled during their flaming passage through the atmosphere and hardened when they reached the cooler surface, free of friction.

“But that doesn't explain how the carvings melted,” he mumbled
into the recorder. “
couldn't have come through the atmosphere. That would mean they had to originate in . . .”

Dr. Story was tired. He had been awake for nearly forty-eight hours. Before he considered the implications that the evidence suggested, he needed rest.

Turning off the desk lamp, he fell into the small bed that folded down from the wall. The gentle rocking in the harbor was a balm after twenty-one days at sea. Despite a sudden thumping on the hull beneath the water—possibly a pilot whale; the cetaceans had shown a surprising tendency to beach themselves of late—the scientist was asleep within moments.

The door opened and a figure entered the room. He moved quietly, cautiously. The rocking of the boat was unpredictable and he did not want to fall against the desk or the bed.

The man laid an empty camera case on the floor. Guided by the light of the moon through a porthole, he quickly gathered up the tablet and the audio recorder. He swaddled the small piece of rock in its cotton wrap and placed it in the camera case.

And then he was gone, headed away from the public jetty. Dropping the two electronic devices into the water, he watched their gurgling descent in the ivory moonlight, then continued toward the Malvina House Hotel.



t was an unseasonably warm October morning, better suited for a stroll than a stride, but Ganak Pawar and his daughter maintained their usual quick pace up the east side of Manhattan. The permanent representative of India to the United Nations, veteran of thirty years as a foreign-service officer, wore a practiced expression of tolerance. Sixteen-year-old Maanik seemed especially energized by the blanket of sunlight that spilled across York Avenue.

“Papa, your presentation last night was amazing!” Maanik said. “I couldn't get to sleep for hours, my brain was alive with so many ideas.”

“That is gratifying,” her father replied.

“It's time for people to think differently about Kashmir and you made that point with the General Assembly,” she said. “I'm glad CNN covered it, it was totally inspiring.”

“I am glad you feel so. I am not being universally thanked for it.”

“Papa, you got in their faces. That took courage!”

Ganak smiled. “I ‘got in their faces,' did I?”

“You know what I mean,” his daughter said, grinning. “Anyway, don't be so modest, especially now. Now is the time for a determined follow-up.”

Ganak wasn't sure if it was courage or desperation that had compelled him to show the video of a Kashmiri mother immolating herself over her dead son. Tensions occurred in Kashmir every few years but this time it felt different. Thirty-two people had died in two days, and Pakistan and India were once again rattling their nuclear sabers. Perhaps that familiar, tired bragging had driven Ganak to suggest they make Kashmir a UN protectorate. If the UN temporarily governed the region, as it had in Kosovo for nine years, that could buy time for the populace to choose whether to join one country or the other, or to opt for independence . . .



“I want to be part of that follow-up,” Maanik said, bouncing in her stride with excitement. “You should hear my ideas.”

He smiled as he regarded her. She looked so mature in her brown faux leather jacket over a dark blue dress. Her leggings were orange and gold, one leg striped horizontally, the other swirling in a feather pattern. She had sewn the disparate halves together herself and matched them with an orange and gold scarf. He noticed with surprise that she had begun to pluck her eyebrows, and though her black hair had always been strong and thick, the way she arranged it over her shoulder was a recent development.

She is so unlike her mother
, he thought. When the Pawar family had moved from New Delhi to Manhattan two years ago and Maanik started at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the girl immediately began to change. Where her mother, Hansa, was reflective, Maanik did her thinking aloud. Where Hansa planned, Maanik improvised. Hansa embraced tradition but Maanik liked to Rollerblade on the sly with the son of the Canadian ambassador. The Pawars' American bodyguard, Daniel—who was walking a few paces behind them—was charged with clandestinely keeping an eye on the young lady when she was not at home.

Ganak couldn't decide whether he was concerned at her shrug
ging off the old ways or if he was proud that she lived her own life. Hansa did not like it but Ganak was not sure, and his diplomatic skills were sometimes tested at home in ways that could rival the current crisis in Kashmir.

Thinking of India and Pakistan pulled down the edges of his smile. These days, walking Maanik to school was one of his only refuges.

“Maanik, I want to hear your ideas but I must caution you, sometimes it is wise to pause after a push.”

“How can that be wise?” she asked. “If something is moving, why not keep it in motion?”

“I read the reports from home before we left this morning. India and Pakistan are both infuriated even while the rest of the world applauds the idea of a protectorate.”

“That's my point,” Maanik said, undaunted. “Now you need to convince India and Pakistan.”

“Ah. It is that simple?”

“Maybe not
simple, but my ideas can help with that. I've been thinking up op-eds for you, press releases, but especially”—she turned and walked backward, facing him and glowing—“what if you let me interview you on video, talking about the situation? Networks would eat that up, parents would watch it with their children, it would be casual and nonthreatening but with our hearts in it, you know? We could get people used to your proposal through conversation instead of arguments. If we get it just right, maybe it could go viral.”

Ganak was impressed. Maanik had prepared a presentation of her own. This revelation about his daughter was one of the reasons that, even in the middle of a crisis, he insisted on maintaining their half-hour, no-cell-phones walk to school.

“Those are very creative ideas, Maanik.”

“Okay! So the next step is, I take a break from school and get an internship with you at United Nations headquarters. Actually, school will probably count that as a class—”

Ganak interrupted. “Interns at the headquarters must be in graduate school. High school students are out of the question.”

“But, Bapu”—she softened him with the Hindi word for “Daddy”—“I have the intelligence and the desire and right now my help is crucial.”

“I appreciate your interest, but every member of the staff is well-credentialed, not just well-intentioned.”

“An exception can be made—”

“Exceptions are the exceptions,” he said.

Maanik frowned. “I don't even understand that.”

“It means no. I'm sorry, Maanik.”

She turned and walked forward again, visibly frustrated. “So I am supposed to just waste my days thinking up ideas and never making any of them happen?”

“You are a very exceptional young lady—”

“And I am telling you, I am wasting time at school.”

“You are learning about other lives, other times.”

“While I ignore the fact that our homeland could erupt into war? I am trapped in irrelevance, Bapu. I want to help.”

“Your books are not irrelevant.”

“Really? And what if one crazy officer in one of the armies actually prepares to launch a warhead this time? What would you do, talk to him about a novel you read? Or a poem?”

“Maanik, my life, you are about to lose this argument.” He smiled.

“Oh?” She stopped on the corner of Seventy-Sixth Street, shifted her weight onto one hip, and raised her eyebrows at him. “How?”

He grinned. “You are young and impatient. I have been where you have been, but you have not been where I have been.”

Maanik turned suddenly to the six-foot-two blond man with the crooked nose who stood behind them. “Daniel, do you think that's a good argument?”

“I am neutral in this, ma'am,” said the bodyguard with a smile. Behind the reflective sunglasses his eyes were on the pedestrians who
moved around them, peripherally watching the cars drive too quickly on the avenue. He looked along the street as they got a walk sign, and they crossed York into a narrow block full of red brick and green leaves just starting to turn.

“Maanik,” Ganak admonished, “allow him to do his job.” His voice softened quickly. It always did with his daughter. “As for you, your job is to learn patience and to get an education and experience, from which grow wisdom.”

“Patience,” she said impatiently.

“Do you know that is my primary job? To guide patiently, compassionately. To nudge people along, not to wrench them to my goal, my will. I work toward a Kashmir protectorate, but slowly. Do you see this as less courageous than shaking your fist or raising your voice? I tell you, it is more!”

The young woman suddenly looked like the little girl who was still so green in her father's memory. They walked in silence. He impulsively took her hand in his. She squeezed it tightly.

They reached the stretch of sidewalk before the school doors. It was full of students and a few teachers sending texts or hurrying through conversations before the activities of the first period began at seven forty-five. Today was Human Rights Club, which alternated with Model UN. But Maanik was not rushing to find her friends. Her father saw that she was thinking hard and he almost regretted the conversation.

As he looked around, it appeared as if everyone outside the school was subdued. After he had shown the video of the mother's suicide to the General Assembly, it had gone viral. He regretted that, especially considering that some of these teenagers had probably watched it, and many more of them must have heard about it. But the world needed a push so that the endless tensions in Kashmir could finally be laid to rest. The Security Council had to pressure India and Pakistan or they would only pressure each other until yes, one day, perhaps a mad general would put an end to the tensions in a much worse way.
The ambassador was aware that he had made the situation even more serious. So, after pushing his daughter from a place where she felt she might have some influence, Ganak could not blame her for falling into solemnity.

“Do not dwell on this,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Trust your father.”

“I do,” she said. “It's the others I do not trust.”

He smiled. “And that is the problem, is it not? Someone must be the first to lay down his saber and believe that the other wants the same thing.”

He waved and turned toward First Avenue. He and Daniel would walk the half hour downtown to the United Nations building, Ganak using the time to mentally rehearse his strategies and make phone calls. Without Maanik by his side he tuned into the city, heard the airplanes and helicopters overhead, the trucks making deliveries, the cars whipping across bumpy streets. He heard the sound of a loud motorcycle but dismissed it without thought.

Daniel did not dismiss the sound at all. The exhaust was so loud that the bike had to have straight pipes, uncommon on the sedate, aging Upper East Side of Manhattan. Daniel stared as the motorcycle turned onto Seventy-Sixth Street—black with red trim, slim rider also in black. It passed a street crew at the corner and roared past a man who was holding a
sign on a pole. That was wrong too: the worker was walking away from the intersection where he should have been managing traffic flow. His strides were long and his gaze leveled on Ambassador Pawar. Shielded by the sign, his free hand disappeared under his yellow-and-red vest—

Outside the high school, no one reacted to the first gunshot. It was just a loud noise under the louder motorcycle. But Ganak turned and froze. That was what the assassins were counting on: paralysis to make him an easy target. That reaction was exactly what Daniel had been trained to overcome.

An instant before the worker had fired, Daniel was already in mo
tion. The bodyguard bear-hugged the ambassador and dropped him hard to the concrete, at the same time turning with his own nine-millimeter drawn. He leaned on his stiff left arm, half-shielding the ambassador, while he aimed toward the street with his right.

With the second and third shots, pedestrians ran shouting for doorways or ducked behind cars. The parked vehicles and trees made it difficult for the gunman to find his target. To the east, the students, the teachers, everyone outside the school started screaming. Half the crowd dropped to the sidewalk, others huddled against the wall; the few still standing were grabbed and pulled to their knees, to their chests, their faces to the sidewalk. Maanik stood still, shaking in fear. The AP English teacher, Ms. Allen, grabbed the girl by the collar and forced her head down.

Maanik struggled against the woman's protective arms and tried to lift her head. She could not scream. She could not even open her mouth. There had not been a fourth gunshot. Did that mean the first three had succeeded? She thought of Daniel, wondered if he was all right, if any of those shots had been his. She felt the cold concrete against her right cheek, a dry leaf crumpled beneath it as she craned to see down the block.

There were sirens in the distance. Ms. Allen hesitated, then pushed herself off her knees. Someone had to check on Maanik's father and it couldn't be Maanik.

“Stay here,” she ordered the student.

Mary Allen motioned for another student to stay with Maanik and ran in a crouch toward First Avenue and the bodies on the sidewalk. She did not see any blood, though she glimpsed a figure in a worker's yellow-and-red vest jump onto the back of a motorcycle. She felt her ears blasted by the roar of the bike as it tore east. She picked out the lumped figures of Maanik's father and the bodyguard. One body stirred, sat up, blond hair catching the sunlight. He turned to the body he was half-covering. The man's head lifted. He placed a hand on the sidewalk, struggled to push himself up, collapsed. Ms. Allen ran to his
side, added her hands as support, and shouted over her shoulder, “Maanik, he's okay! They're both all right!”

Though that wasn't entirely true: now she noticed the blood on the pavement. She looked all over the ambassador's body before she saw blood gushing from the bodyguard's sleeve and knew that it was he who had been struck. She called for someone to get the school nurse.

• • •

Fifteen minutes later, having just gotten off the phone with his wife, Ganak Pawar gently lifted his daughter's head from his shoulder and helped her sit upright on the couch in the principal's office. He pulled a fleck of dry, broken leaf from her cheek. They were alone, both unharmed. Daniel had been rushed to the hospital, losing blood fast, his right arm useless, but the EMTs had assured them he would be okay.

Maanik had not cried, even as the adrenaline drained out of her. Her deep, ragged breaths calmed into something approaching normal. She was still shaking, but her father could not ignore the knock on the door. The principal looked in.

“Mr. Ambassador, your car is here.”

“Yes, thank you,” he said. “I will be right there.”

Maanik grabbed his hand, held it tight.

BOOK: A Vision of Fire
13.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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