Year 199X. AMERICAN PRESIDENT LIFTS EMBARGO ON VIETNAM!
Richard Steel, the richest American - that is to say, the richest man in the world - the one they call simply "The Billionaire," leaps into his private jet. Destination: Saigon. His entourage is impressive. More than 100 people. He isn't taking any chances. Everyone who can contribute to the success of his operation has been included. Mission impossible: To find his son John, missing in action since 1972 during a bombing raid over the 17th parallel. John, his only son. He'll find him, he'll bring his remains back to the United States. The Billionaire promised his wife on her deathbed, one day their little boy would rest next to her in the family plot. The Steel Dynasty...When the Billionaire decides to do something, nothing stops him. In his whole life he's never known an obstacle he couldn't overcome. No one and nothing can stop him. He's a fighter. He always wins.
The Billionaire's staff is silent. They've all worked hard to prepare the mission. Everyone is fascinated by the Billionaire's insatiable drive. But no one believes he can succeed.
"Everything in order for tomorrow, Colonel Wood?" said the Billionaire, emptying his glass of whiskey in one swig.
Colonel Wood has been hired as Staff Commander. When he worked for the State Department, the MIA/POW problem was his issue. It was the Colonel who had negotiated with the Vietnamese government; he was the one who had personally sifted through the 4,000 documents delivered by the Vietnamese before the embargo was lifted. But there had been no trace of John Steel.
"Everything is ready, sir" the Colonel said gruffly. "The warehouses, the buildings, the equipment, the telecommunications network. The entire area has been ready for a week now. You'll have direct satellite links to the rest of the world. You'll be able to follow the operations closely. The command post is located in a wing of your villa. Your wife's Bible is on the altar, in the little chapel next to your bedroom. I've checked everything."
"What about the publicity campaign?"
"Yes, sir. Radio stations, the television networks - the entire national and local press corps will be there for your conference tomorrow morning. Almost a thousand of them. We've bought the front page of all the newspapers, a radio spot every hour, and the national television station every night for a hundred days. Prime time. We've got all the publicity spots in the country. There are billboards all over the place. No one will be able to miss the offer. We start tomorrow morning. All you have to do is choose your service woman."
The Colonel passed a photo album to the Billionaire: "We've already bought them all. There's no risk of AIDS or infection. Your doctor has examined them - they're virgins, healthy girls. Whoever you choose will be brought to your suite tonight. She won't be allowed out for any reason. The villa is well-guarded."
The Billionaire flipped through the album. Indeed the girls were young and beautiful. But that didn't really interest him. He had never been particularly attracted to a pretty face. But doctor's orders were doctor's orders: he had been advised to make love once a day to maintain his physical and psychological equilibrium. The Billionaire quickly skimmed through the candidates' resumes, and stopped at the first girl who spoke English fluently.
Colonel Wood coughed. "There's still time to change your mind. The mission is impossible. I've managed this portfolio for more than 20 years. It's absolutely crazy...you've got one chance in a million..."
"Well, I'll buy that chance. I've got a budget of a billion dollars for it. The GNP of this country is 164 dollars per head. We've got enough to buy that one chance in a million. I'm giving you 100 days to find it. We're going to win, Colonel. You just leave your bureaucracy, your dossiers, your politics, your strategies, and all your stupid diplomatic tactics in the closet. I don't investigate, I don't negotiate, I act. I buy. I'm going to succeed where your Pentagon has failed.
The next morning, the entire national and local press swarmed into the Billionaire's vast conference room. The Billionaire wasn't a man to waste his time on a long speech. He got right to the point: "I've got a billion dollars to find my son, John Steel. US Airforce. Disappeared in combat on the 24th of December 1972 over the 17th parallel. I'll make the person who helps me find him - dead or alive - a millionaire for the rest of his life. What's more, I pay cash 164 dollars for all unidentified skeletons. And I mean all of 'em - whether they're men, women or children. Find 'em, bring 'em to me, I'll pay. No questions asked. Our offices are open 24 hours a day for exactly 100 days. Everybody's welcome." And he left.
The news spread like wildfire. Every morning, on their front page, every newspaper in Vietnam published a photo of John Steel, his measurements, his facial traits, the phone, address, and fax number of the Research Center, a map to get there, bus schedules from the surrounding cities, train timetables, planes.....the 164 reward for each whole skeleton, and a range of fees for separate bones. The radio stations announced the offer every hour. National television repeated it every evening. In one night, Hanoi, Saigon, all the provincial towns, even the most remote villages, were covered with posters. A skull...164 dollars per skeleton....Public offer to purchase...repeated millions and millions of times throughout the entire country. The Billionaire's operation was passionately debated, from the highest ranks of the Vietnamese Communist Party to the most squalid slums. Some were for it, others were against it. No one thought of forbidding it. Such an indisputably humanitarian project. The Vietnamese worship their ancestors, the memory of the dead. They couldn't oppose this. And then, the Vietnamese economy had never had such a windfall. A billion dollars for a skeleton! And everyone had a chance - from the most powerful to the most humble. Never had they known such justice, such democracy.
On the first day, no one showed up at the Research Center.
The second day, as night fell, a suspicious looking man with scruffy hair and a face half-masked by a bushy beard slipped into the reception room, a dirty sack slung over his shoulder. The man unpacked the contents of his sack - a large male skeleton - pocketed the 164 dollars and disappeared.
The Billionaire immediately ordered forensic work on the skeleton. In a specially-conceived laboratory, Professor Smith and his team had all the data, all the instruments needed to identify even the smallest bone that might belong to John. They had all the photos, all the X-rays of John from the day of his birth to his disappearance. The shape and size of the bones - everything had been photographed, measured, calculated, and catalogued in a precise graphic and numerical data base. A camera scanned images of a skeleton and transmitted them to a neuronic computer, where artificial intelligence software gave a precise reading on whether or not they belonged to John Steel.
The Professor: "It's not him. But the skeleton is unusual. From its configuration, it could be either Vietnamese or American. According to the computer, it's fifty-fifty. Probably a half-breed. What do we do with it?"
"Put it aside. It's the first. An authentic unknown soldier. When we find John, we're gonna give this boy a coffin cut to the measure of his tragedy."
By the third day, people in rags were swarming up to the counters. They were all well-received and paid according to the set rates: 164 dollars for a whole skeleton, 10 dollars for a skull, five for a tibia...and ten cents for bone fragments.
Colonel Wood's carefully-conceived sorting warehouse bustled. Women and children's bones were dumped into specially-tagged bins. Men's bones were stocked in bins close to the command headquarters and directly linked to the laboratory by remote-control belts. Intelligent robots sorted the bones into their 214 known parts: the skull bone, the vertebrae, the clavicle....They passed them one by one under the eyes of the cameras for the first sort. Vietnamese bones are put into the refuse bins. The American bones were given a final examination by neuronic computer.
In Vietnam, as in all poor countries of the world, the grapevine works wonders. Barely a week had passed, but everyone already knew that the Billionaire kept his word, that he paid cash, no questions asked, for any kind of bones they brought him. The Research Center was besieged. People came bearing skulls, tibias, ribs, a phalanx, a femur..You just presented your bones at a counter, placed them on a conveyer belt to be scanned by the cameras, and pocketed the money...Only dog, cat, and monkey bones were refused.
Long lines of human beings converged from every province in the country to the Research Center. Never had the land, the rice fields, the forests been scoured so thoroughly...Sometimes men, women, and children stumbled onto long-buried mines, undetonated bombs. The Billionaire generously reimbursed the families of the deceased. He bought their skeletons at twice the normal rate.
Never in human memory have so many human bones been piled up by the square meter. Men women children old people Viets Laos Khmers Thais Koreans Australians New Zealanders French black white red yellow brown Australopithecus, and....even a few Americans. The Billionaire sent the Western bones to their respective national governments, and the prehistoric bones to the museums. He had the rest stacked in warehouses kept for this purpose. Men with men, women with women, children with children, old people with old people, babies with babies. Some of the bones were recent, barely clean, scraped down with knives. Sometimes, bits of nerves, shreds of flesh still stuck to the bones. But that didn't matter. The Billionaire didn't want to discourage anyone. He paid. No questions asked.
By the end of a month, the bins were overflowing.
"What do we do now? Do we put them in the bins with the Americans?" asked Colonel Wood.
"Absolutely not. Buy all the rice paddies in the area, and pile them up there. How are we doing?"
"More than 400,000 so far, sir."
"Terrific. We're ahead of schedule. You'll have more than one chance in a million. If it exists, we're going to find it."
The rice paddies were immediately transformed into stocking areas. Men to the North. Women to the South. Children to the East. Babies to the West. At the beginning, the piles formed tiny hills. But day by day, the bones scattered over the Vietnamese land slid towards the center. Soon the hills formed huge mountains visible from several miles away. A dense network of trains was rapidly extended. The four asphalt roads to the Research Center stretched toward the four horizons. Now, you drove to the Center through a mountain range, at the bottom of a gorge, between two steep walls of bones.
The New York Times published a huge aerial photo with the headline: "For The Love Of A Son: The Most Extravagant Enterprise In Human History." A few intellectuals from the Old World protested. They hadn't understand a thing about the market economy. A few, brighter, hipper young philosophers rapped about the operation on CNN. A handful of Vietnamese artists cried scandal. A lone deputy dared suggest setting up an investigative committee. Alarmed, the Vietnamese government published a convoluted communiqué about human rights and the importance of humanitarian missions. It couldn't have done less. It couldn't have done much more. Thanks to the billion dollars, unemployment had vanished from the province. And, if you took the country as a whole, hunger had been reduced.
By the 75th day, - two thirds of the way into the Billionaire's schedule - land for stocking bones was scarce. On the last few available acres, he had crematoriums built. The Billionaire led all the operations, assisted with the sorting. He seldom ate, slept only about four hours a day, working non-stop from dawn to dusk. In the evenings, after 10 o'clock, he would retire to his villa, shower, gulp down a sandwich, wash it down with a half-bottle of whiskey, make love with the service woman, and then retreat to the chapel to pray and commune with his wife. Every evening he would remember his son. Such a tall, handsome young man. So intelligent. Such blue eyes. A life full of such promise, such a future. That was yesterday, some 20 years ago. Every night, the Billionaire would place his hand on the Bible and renew the vow. And every morning, at 4 o'clock, he was back at the command post.
By the 80th day, the tide of bones began to subside. Old bones became rarer and rarer. On the 90th day, the supply tapered off completely. The Billionaire stepped up his efforts, encouraging, motivating, tirelessly inspiring his men. "If there's one chance in a million to find him, it's now that it's going to happen."
The fateful day approached. Skeleton sellers were rare now. At the most a dozen per day. Now they either brought new skeletons, or those over a hundred years old. The next to last day, only an old beggar walked up to one of the counters with a big toe bone. And that was the last ten cents of the billion dollars.
The 100th day. No one came. From his armchair, the Billionaire watched the hands of the clock on the wall inch along. The office was aglow in the sunset, the rosewood furniture aflame with its rays. The clock chimed, announcing the end of the day. The Billionaire sighed, pushed aside his glass of whiskey, and stood up to go.
Just then, three discrete knocks on the door. The interpreter slipped into the office, shuffling his way to the Billionaire's desk.
"There's an old man here who would like to speak to you, sir."
"Give him the dollars and throw the bones in the pile. The campaign's over."
"He doesn't have a skeleton to sell. He just wanted to give this to you."
The interpreter opened his hand. In his palm lay a tiny black velvet satchel. Irritated, the Billionaire picked it up, and distractedly pulled it open. A tiny platinum cross with a ruby heart encrusted at the intersection of the two branches. The Billionaire shuddered. Now it was certain. John was dead. His son would never have parted with the cross. His mother had had it made for him by the best jeweller in Paris. The Billionaire slumped back into his armchair.
"Show him in" he said, in a low voice.
A frail old man with white hair and eyebrows and a long white goatee entered. He seemed to float in his peasant pyjamas, the earthy, ochre color of the High Plateaux. He advanced softly, leaning on a bamboo cane. He stopped at the desk. The Billionaire offered him a seat. The old man shook his head.
"Where did you find this cross?"
"It belongs to me."
"Do you know where my son is?"
"Show me the place. I'll cover you in gold to the third generation."
The old man shook his head.
"Tell me what you want then," said the Billionaire.
"You will burn the mountains of bones. You will sow the ashes on the Vietnamese land, from the Gate of Nam Quan to the tip of Ca Mau. When you have done it, come to my house, in the Village of Man, at the foot of the Mountain of Peace. I'll give you back your son's bones."
"I'll be there in seven days."
The old man didn't respond. He turned his head, left the office slowly. His cane resonated on the floor. Sharp, regular ticks, as if to announce the beginning of a play.
The Billionaire summoned his staff. He ordered the cremation of the bones within six days. The Colonel paled. "But that's impossible! The furnaces are working at full tilt. The locals are already complaining about the smell and the smoke. We've got enough trouble calming the authorities."
"Shut up! What's impossible? God created the world in seven days. Why can't we burn this lousy pile of bones in less time? Quadruple the teams, double the salaries, but make sure that production continues. If there aren't enough furnaces, bring wood, coal, and gasoline. Light as many bonfires as it takes. In seven days, I want my jets to scatter those damn ashes from Nam Quan to Ca Mau. Execute!"
Never in human memory had so much fire and smoke filled one corner of the earth. A hellish furnace swarming with men, women, and children blackened with soot. Human chains criss-crossed and encircled the furnaces, burning embers in the chaotic links of an immense net. They passed the bones hand-to-hand down from the mountains to the gaping mouths of the furnaces, a thick, acrid smoke hung in the air. By the third day, you could no longer distinguish night from day. Shadows darted in and out of the murky twilight. For six days and six nights running the smoke covered the province in a mantle of lead, searing faces, blinding eyes, scratching throats. People burrowed into their homes, barricading doors and windows. They prayed. Babies stopped crying. The earth became as still as a prayer, a silence broken only by the crackling of the bonfires.
By the evening of the sixth day, the furnaces, the bonfires, the prayers, had all flickered out. A bloodied sun rose and, for an instant, set the sky aflame, and then night engulfed the earth. A warm wind rose in the East, slowly dispersing the smoke. A few pale stars twinkled. And a chill moon lit the silence.
A cock crowed. In the distance, a dog barked. You could hear a baby cry. The sun emerged, shivering, from the fog. On the horizon, a dull rumbling as a squadron of planes took off, howling across the sky, scattering long grey streaks in their wake. Ashes rained to the earth. Not a single rice paddy was spared. Ash suffused the air, dusting the trees, the plants, the flowers, penetrating every human dwelling. It blinded the eyes, blocked the nose, stuck in the throat. All day, from North to South, a tornado of grey ash against the screeching of jet planes. That evening, the tempest subsided. The night returned the silence.
The next morning, the Billionaire went to the old man's house.
"Old Man, I have fulfilled your wish. Now, give me my son's bones."
The old man looked at him with tenderness. "I thank you," he said in a soft, low voice. "Our dead have finally been returned to their ancestors. The dead belong there where men build civilizations. Go find your son. He is in my garden, under the altar."
The Billionaire rushed into the old man's garden. At the foot of an old banyan tree, stood a brick altar, a few joss sticks smouldering there. The Billionaire ordered his men to unearth the coffin. The men advanced, shovels and pails in hand.
Nearby, crouched against the root of the banyan tree, a child watched in silence. The Billionaire approached him, and bent down to give him a dollar. The boy pushed his hand away, and as he ran to hide behind the old man his bamboo-leaf hat fell into the open grave. The Billionaire picked it up, and walked toward the boy. He shuddered. The child's eyes, brimming with tears, were blue with hatred.
The Billionaire sipped his whiskey and gazed at the luxurious coffin where his son lay. He had won. He had fulfilled his duty as a father, his wife's last wish. The Billionaire's jet had been ready to return to the US for over a week now. But now he hesitated. He couldn't leave Vietnam without knowing how his son had died. He had the interpreter sent to the Village of Man, at the foot of Peace Mountain.
The interpreter slid into the office with a feline step. The Billionaire swivelled around on his armchair. "Well?"
"It's done. I spent a fortune. They finally talked."
"Well done. Go ahead.."
"Do you really want to know everything?"
"Yes, everything. "
"The villagers killed him. John jumped from his plane before it exploded, and broke his left leg. He must have crawled through the jungle for a long time. The old man found him lying unconscious next to a stream and carried him home. We don't know how long he lived with the old man. One night, he snuck out to the stream. A child saw him and alerted the village. They arrested him immediately. The village had been routinely bombed. A lot of people died, there was a lot of hatred. The villagers formed a kangaroo court and condemned your son and the old man's daughter to death. They shot your son on the spot. The girl was pregnant, so she got a reprieve. When the kid was born, they gave him to the old man."
"Thanks. You can go now. Not a word to anyone. That's an order. Understand?"
The Billionaire sipped his whiskey. He gazed at the luxurious coffin where his son lay, overcome by a mixture of pain and tenderness. And he stayed there for hours, without moving. Suddenly, he shook his head, got up, and called the service woman.
"Please, help me."
He opened the coffin. Together they carried the bones to the furnace. While the skeleton burned, they lay the bones of the unknown soldier in the coffin.
The next morning, the Billionaire went to the old man's house. He clutched an urn of ashes to his chest. The old man was seated in the shade of the banyan tree. The boy stood behind him, his skinny arms enlaced the old man's neck. His eyes were intense, blue, hateful. The Billionaire sighed.
Old man, I've brought you your son's ashes. This is his final resting place. And now, I must say goodbye.
Farewell. May peace be with you.
The Billionaire looked over at the boy with the blue eyes one last time. He walked away, his step calm, assured. His heart filled with a strange sense of relief.
He brought the unknown soldier's skeleton back to the United States. He buried it with great pomp and circumstance next to his wife's grave, in the family plot. He married the service woman. They had many children. And they lived happily... Among their vast progeny were many learned people, famous women and men of letters, beloved citizens. One of them became the first woman president of the United States.
Translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong
© Copyright Phan Huy Ðường, 1993