Mukasa Bis and the Snowbird Affair -A Novella

Chapter 2


“The suit was on the fourth floor of the Hotel Novotel, Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russia. The huge glass window of the inner room opened to the grand view of the lobby on the building’s quadrangular inner space four stories below.

A faint click was heard on the suit’s front door. The door opened, allowing a view of the inside by only a fraction of an inch. Two figures quietly entered the room, their guns were at ready. They checked the first room and the toilet. It was empty.

I was standing on the outer ledge of the glass window with Snowbird by my side. Snowbird shut his eyes tight, his contorted face showed that he was fighting an extreme degree of vertigo. If we had to jump, we would hit the lobby’s floor in two seconds. How long before they found out we were here?

The door knob of the inner room turned. One of them checked the attached bath while the other stood guard. A copy of Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ lay on the bed. There was a whisper in Chinese, ‘Not here!’

Then they came walking straight to the window!”

“Wait a minute! Just now you were fighting American mercenaries in Bolivia, trying to rescue Snowbird Walden, who was stuck in the transit zone of a Russian airport. Where did these Chinese agents come from? Isn’t this becoming a bit of an international hodge-podge? Which would be, by the way, a way to divert attention from an ill-conceived plot.”

Kaustav interrupted Mukasa Bis, the mysterious man who was telling his story ‘live’ on the online bloggers’ forum. This was the second day of the story. After the first instalment of his account the previous night, members of the forum had been talking about it all day long today. Some joked about it, some dismissed it outright as crappy fiction. One or two appraisals were there initially, but they were eventually drowned against the motion. Mukasa had, just like the last time, appeared suddenly and started from the point where he had left.

“Yeah! The unity of time, place and action!” Piku made a wise face as his comment appeared on the forum’s page just below Kaustav’s. He was sitting across the room with his laptop. His wisecrack was borrowed from one of Kaustav’s enlightening lectures to me on how Aristotle prescribed the three unities in the plot-conception of drama. “Time frames shouldn’t stretch too much from the beginning to the end of the play, the same for the spatial setting and the action,” Kaustav had elaborated, “so that in effect you have a ‘tight’ story.”

Perhaps Kaustav would now appreciate with surprise that Piku had actually remembered his words. But presently Piku exhaled a cloud of smoke from the joint he was smoking, which made a fine curvature in the mid-air, the ceiling fan was rotating in full speed. Then the smoke descended on Kaustav’s face with the strong foul smell of burning grass. That sentimental moment between Kaustav and Piku, postponed!

“Get out of the room if you want to smoke that thing!” Kaustav yelled. Piku ran to the balcony. I had to run after him to bring him back, or it would be the landlord who would come next, yelling ‘Get out!’

One of the members in the forum was kind enough to defend Mukasa against Piku’s newly picked up Aristotelian objection – “The three unities are for drama. This is…well, I don’t know yet what this is, but let’s be patient.” Apparently Mukasa was not yet in the mood to entertain interruptions. He went on:

“When I had arrived at the airport two hours earlier, I saw crowds of journalists literally swarming through the various terminals of the airport in the hope of finding Snowbird Walden. My companion Dr. Leann Martinez had checked into the V-Express at the Terminal-E of the airport. The V-Express was a kind of ‘capsule hotel’ that offered cruise-ship style beds with clean towels and a standalone shower to passengers on layover. But surely Snowbird was not there. These ‘capsule hotels’ did not provide lodging for more than 24 hours, and Snowbird had been stuck here for the better part of two months now. Dr. Martinez suggested that we parted company for the time being and that I should only get in touch with him once I had located Snowbird. I agreed and left for the Burger King on the same floor.

The restaurant’s TV was on and all the news channels were abuzz with Snowbird’s story. “The American computer professional,” the voiceover of the newsreader went on with a mild suspense-thriller theme music in the background, “formerly a system administrator for CIA and then a counterintelligence trainer at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) worked inside an NSA outpost in Japan and then in Hawaii. Snowbird bade goodbye to the American dream, to his perfectly successful and still upwardly mobile life when he decided to take a stand against the NSA’s global data surveillance. He revealed almost 15,000 or more Australian intelligence files, at least 58,000 British intelligence files, nearly 1.7 million NSA documents consisting of roughly 160,000 intercepted e-mail and instant-message conversations, some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts. What is wrong with all this data? Allegedly they were all unlawfully obtained at the expense of the individual internet user’s privacy. Every google or yahoo account can now be monitored, every correspondence intercepted. Tapping your emails and instant messaging contact lists, searching your email content, tracking and mapping the location of your cell phone are perfectly possible now.”

“They were designed as counter terrorist measures.” Snowbird appeared in the video footage that he had uploaded from somewhere in this very airport. “But the flipside is that within a decade, the trauma of nine-eleven seems to have turned into a form of organized paranoia. In the name of pre-emptive measures, agencies world over – the PRISM, the GCHQ and many more are going beyond their core interest of national security and making every individual’s data usage prone to surveillance by the state.”

The voiceover with the background score was back, “Snowbird Walden had begun to move from merely overseeing these systems to actively directing their use. He was now an ‘infrastructure analyst’ whose job was to look for new ways to break into the internet and telephone traffic around the world. In his last years with the agency he was entrusted with the electronic monitoring of China and North Korea. Gradually, when he was designated to the task of targeting individuals and groups, his morals came into loggerheads with his duty to his nation, and he decided not to serve the system in which he no longer believed. He decided to walk away, but not without making a difference…”

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Was a volume of “Collected Poems” likely to induce poetic insanity into someone who hardly had anything to do with poetry? I was alarmed at the rate it was taking over my thoughts in the last few hours. At moments, every trivial object and unconnected circumstances seemed to almost rise up to a connection, a déjà vu, and then promptly lost in the mind before I could grasp in it something to make sense of. The book that seemed to provide one line or two at each uncomfortable turn, I had forgotten to mention, was in fact a finely typed manuscript. Dr. Kalhan’s daughter had compiled this collection long ago. It was never published though. The introduction that she wrote made her professor husband suspect hints of abnormality in her for the first time. At times in the past few months, although she had gradually stopped communicating verbally, poetry had been her sole outlet. A few times in a day, then in a week, she would just burst into beautiful recitations of verses from various sources. And then she would fall silent again.

“You love to recite, don’t you?” They would sometimes ask her.

“The baby loves it.” She would sometimes answer.

It was possible that in the last few days, Dr. Kalhan was giving in to some kind of mental imbalance too. “She has given me so much, shown so much!” he had said. She had given me this manuscript in the fashion of a parting gift. Could she have foreseen? Why was I still carrying a bundle of typed pages around? Would it someday stop a bullet to the heart? Can it save lives? What was lost was lost now, and instead, much more was at stake. Snowbird’s passport was revoked by his country and he didn’t have a Russian visa, so he was now stuck in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo Airport. If Snowbird really possessed information on the Michigan Lab research, more parties would be interested in him.

Two reporters were interviewing the manager of the restaurant. The waiters shot them nasty glances. Their business had been bolstered through the previous couple of weeks after over-enthusiastic journalists had started frequenting the terminals of the airport in large numbers to look for any news relating to Snowbird, although all in vain. No sign of Snowbird was to be found anywhere. What were the chances that I would be able to find him? He was apparently hiding in plain sight for almost two months now.

Or was he?

There was some news on the Bolivian President’s Europe tour. As I sipped the coffee the TV channel automatically changed to the airport’s own telecasting frequency. I absent-mindedly looked on. An advertisement started, filling the screen with a grand view of the hotel Novotel, its huge building adjoining the terminals of the airport.

Utsab Ray

(to be continued)


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