Samuel Federer waited patiently for the helicopter to arrive. He didn’t mind the diversion. He loved looking out the sheer glass window at the city below and above. Even on the 50th floor, where his ambassador’s suite was located, the view was a dense forest canopy of buildings through which he could barely catch a glimpse of the sky. “You could probably put two Empire State Buildings inside that one,” he thought, gazing at the particularly massive Chinese National Offshore Oil Company headquarters across from his residential tower.
As the darkness gathered, the helicopters continued to buzz in and out among these shining towers like hummingbirds in a garden of honeysuckle. Occasionally they looped out of each other’s way but there had never been a collision in fifteen years since the new centralized navigation system was put into effect. Each pilot punched in a destination and the computers did the rest. It was said that the feet of some top Chinese bureaucrats never touched the ground for months at a time as they shuttled back and forth in this empyrean of officialdom.
“Are you ever tempted to override the navigation system and steer this yourself?” Federer had once asked his pilot, who, like everyone else he met in Beijing, spoke almost perfect English.
“Oh, no,” the pilot had laughed. “You get electric shock, see?” He grabbed the controls and mimicked a sudden reflexive pain. “Only one thing allow you to override. If your passenger having heart attack. Then you press this red button, see?” He pointed to a lighted square overhead. “That take you directly to hospital.”
At 62, Federer had already had two heart attacks and so he felt somewhat assured. With the state of Chinese medicine, he probably didn’t have much to worry about anyway.
Suddenly his own jitney swooped down out of the sky and landed on the orange pad outside the gate. It was a shiny silver dragonfly with an American flag emblazoned on the side — although as everyone knew, it had been designed and manufactured on this side of the Pacific. The whirling blades scattered small flecks of carbon ash against the window. After all these years, the Chinese still had not completely managed to clean the air of their major cities, although things were now infinitely better. The coal haze that once hung over Beijing when he arrived 25 years ago was completely gone. Now it was only the occasional flecks of unburned charcoal that drifted in from the encampments at the edge of the city.
As the blades slackened to a stop the canopy to protect him from the winds slid slowly out over the landing platform. At this altitude it was often hard to gauge the winds no matter how seemingly placid the day. Legend had it that a minor attaché at the American Embassy had once been blown off one of these platforms, although the Chinese always insisted it was a suicide. There had been the usual lawsuit, but nothing was ever really resolved. These days, however, you didn’t question the Chinese about their technology. You could only admire.
“Right this way, sir,” said the steward as the doors opened. He was a small, spry local lad of about 26, dressed in a natty blue uniform. “Here, let me carry that.” Federer reluctantly relinquished his attaché case. The briefcase was a bit of an oddity but the Chinese loved to handle it, as if fawning over some ancient relic from the Ming Dynasty. “Heavy!” said the attendant jokingly, although it hardly weighed ten pounds. The Chinese never carried briefcases anymore, having everything stored on their i-Worlds. Federer barely squeezed his bulk into the passenger seat as the steward slammed the door behind him. Although the Chinese were growing bigger all the time, there was still nothing like the girth of an out-of-condition American.
“Where to?” said the pilot in a pretty good imitation of a New York taxi driver. It was a joke he offered on every trip.
“The Ministry of Trade,” said Federer. “And don’t stop for any red lights.”
The pilot laughed, touched a few icons on his screen and within moments the rapidly accelerating swish-swish-swish of the blades lifted them in the air. The pilot settled comfortably in his seat. He glanced up at two photographs taped to the panel above his head, apparently his wife and a teenage boy. Although at least 40, he still had an air of diligent curiosity.
“Working late tonight?” inquired the pilot.
“There’s a reception for the international business community,” said Federer. “I’m not going to stay very long. You can pick me up around 9.”
“Sure thing,” said the pilot. “So, what you think of those New York Yankees? They have pretty good team, eh?”
“I’m from the Midwest,” said Federer resignedly. “I’ve never had much use for the Yankees.”
“They got three Chinese players now. Two pitchers, one catcher.”
“I don’t follow baseball much but when I do I root for the Chicago Cubs.”
The pilot laughed that terse, Chinese laugh that sounded like expelling something from your throat.
“Cubs have no Chinese players. That’s why they lose all time, right?”
Federer laughed again but did not argue the point.
“You think Beijing have major league team soon?” the pilot queried.
“I don’t know,” said Federer. “It seems like a long way to fly for a three-game series.”
“I bet we win World Series, like that team from Mexico.” Since the Mexico City Caballeros had won the 2058 Super Bowl, countries all over the world were clamoring to get into American sports leagues.
“Maybe we’ll let you play in Hawaii,” said Federer, trying to be accommodating. “We’ll meet you halfway.”
The helicopter swooped downward and in a few moments was on the Ministry of Trade’s landing pad just below a huge plate glass window on the 30th floor.
“See you at nine,” said the pilot, shaking hands as he always did. “Have a nice evening.” The steward, who had sat silently behind him the whole time, handed him his briefcase.
THE RECEPTION WAS in a huge new cavernous ballroom that seemed to be modeled on the court of Kublai Kahn. It was extravagant, but what wasn’t extravagant in Beijing these days? Federer checked his coat and attaché case and surveyed the room for familiar faces. They were all there, the vast entrepreneurial battalions of the world’s greatest commercial nation, some dressed in formal black suit and tie, others sporting more casual garb — open-necked polo shirts, aviator glasses and shaggy, over-the-collar hairstyles. Federer had long watched these legions as they gained confidence, jetting off to Gabon or the Amazon to check on the output of a uranium mine or the blend at a South American refiner. They ruled the commercial world in a way no American could fathom anymore. Moreover they weren’t embarrassed by their success, as Americans had been for the past fifty years. This was an old, old country with three thousand years of history behind it. They were not at all surprised to find themselves at the center of the world once more.
Sprinkled throughout the crowd were small clusters of Western women in gay colors and outlandish dresses. They laughed and talked comfortably with the Chinese, occasionally draping a limp arm on someone’s shoulder. It was the P.J. O’Rourke principle, posited by that humorist from the last century: “If you want to know where success is in the world, look for the pretty women.”
“Are you going to the party tonight?” came a mellifluous British-accented voice from a group of women as they scurried by him.
“I hear he’s worth a fortune,” said a raven-haired beauty in a red minidress and stiletto heels as she trotted after.
Federer bit his tongue and bided his time.
“Mr. Ambassador.” A fresh-faced young American stepped up to him as if he had just walked out of a corn field. “I understand you’re a graduate of the University of Iowa.”
“Yes, that’s right. Class of ’25. How did you know?’
“I’m a graduate myself, Class of ’60.”
“Well, congratulations.” They shook hands. “We should go be going back the same reunion year, except I haven’t been to one in 25 years.”
“I don’t either. I don’t get back much to the States anymore. Listen, I’d like to introduce you to some of my colleagues,” he said, turning around and indicating a eclectic group of young men. Two of them were dressed in sneakers, although expensive ones. “This is Rahul, Vignesh, Hwang, Mohammed, Sergei and Vishod.” Federer acknowledged each of them, hoping to remember at least one name. “We just started a company in Singapon Valley and wanted to know if you could help us getting our product marketed in the United States.”
“It’s a Virtual Reality experience,” said the Indian — was it Vishnod? — stepping forward on cue. “But this is like no other. We have mimicked the psychedelic experience of drugs such as LSD and psilocybin that were popular in America in the last century. It’s completely clean, non-addictive and doesn’t damage brain cells. You get the same experience but with none of the side effects. We think it will be a very big seller in the U.S.”
“I don’t know whether we need anything like that in the U.S. right now,” said Federer. “We’re pretty well saturated with virtual reality already.” He wondered if South American drug lords talked this way when introducing people to cocaine.
“We believe this will actually substitute for drugs,” said the young Chinese entrepreneur, who was wearing a Berkeley pullover. “This is very important in America. We may ask the federal government to sanction it as a form of therapy.”
“I would start with the Food and Drug Administration,” said Federer, hoping to end the conversation as soon as possible. “You’ll probably need to get their permission.”
He turned away from the group and pulled the young Iowan aside. “Are you still an American citizen?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, sir. I have dual citizenship, Singapore and the U.S.,” he said, suddenly turning very polite.
“Why on earth did you go out there?” asked Federer, fearful he already knew the answer.
“The whole industry is moving to Singapore, sir,” he said. “You have to go there.”
“Well, I hope to see you back in Iowa sometime,” said Federer, knowing he wouldn’t be there himself.
“I’ll try, sir,” said the young man and turned away.
FEDERER WANDERED AROUND until he ran into someone else from the embassy. It was Cruickshank, the Harvard graduate who handled cultural affairs. “You wouldn’t believe what’s going on in Singapore,” said Federer, above the buzz of conversation. “Something about Virtual Reality on drugs. Just what we need.”
“We certainly miss that industry, sir,” said Cruickshank, who seemed to be a bit nervous in his presence. “We can’t just cede everything to them, you know.”
“Well, we’ll probably have to start on square one again,” said Federer. “I don’t think any of those industries are coming back.”
At that moment none other than Hwang Fu himself, the Minister of Trade, walked up and greeted Federer. “Good evening, Mr. Ambassador,” he said in perfect English. “Nice of you to come by this evening.”
Federer tried answering in Mandarin but the Minister waved him off. He never got to use it anymore.
“What do you think of our Chinese business community?” he asked politely. “Have we become a match for you Americans?”
“I’d say you’re more than a match,” said Federer, perhaps a little too hastily. “I mean, you’re doing very well. I’m very impressed.”
“We still haven’t caught up with you Americans on per capita income. You do very well in that respect.”
“Well, you’ve got almost two billion people to feed. That’s a big job.”
“We have noticed that your Federal Reserve is starting to inflate the currency again,” said the Minister, turning slightly toward Federer and talking just loud enough for him to hear. “We’re not very pleased with this. We don’t think the dollar can last much longer as the world currency. We think the renminbi is in a much better position.”
“Mr. Trade Minister, I can assure you the United States has every intention of maintaining the value of its currency,” responded Federer forcefully. “Nothing is more important to us than full faith and credit of the dollar.” He was amazed at how quickly he could still churn this stuff out. It was pure reflex.
“We very much appreciate that,” said the Minister, bowing courteously. “And China has every intention of making sure the United States honors those commitments.” He moved away, leaving Federer with the strange feeling that something more might have been meant by those remarks.
“Did you hear that?” he asked Cruikshank, who was still standing beside him.
“I think the Chinese are showing concern about the debt,” said Cruikshank in his usual academic fashion.
“I think they probably have good reason,” added Federer.
At that moment another group of officials walked up and greeted the ambassador, once again in English. He vaguely recognized one of them as someone he had met at the Energy Ministry.
“Good evening, Mr. Ambassador,” said the head delegate. The others in the group smiled and nodded as he returned their greeting. The Chinese were always good about letting one person talk. “We represent Traveling Wave reactor and are just departing for America to try to market it to the many utility companies and rural electric cooperatives you have in your country. Do you know of Traveling Wave, sir?”
“Wasn’t that the reactor that Bill Gates gave you?” said Federer.
“Yes, Mr. William Gates brought the Travelling Wave to China in 2010. We give him great honor for this. His picture hangs in our corporate offices.”
“I’m glad he’s still appreciated somewhere.”
“Travelling Wave is now all over China. Every village has one. We call them ‘nuclear batteries.’ They run 50 years without refueling, no waste at the end. Everything burn up. China has prevented global warming with this technology.”
“Yes, we certainly do appreciate that,” said Federer. “But what can I do for you?”
“As part of deal for buying Travelling Wave, we are offering towns and cities the opportunity to take down their old windmills and return them to China. We are wondering if there will be any problem bringing in Chinese workers to do the job.”
Federer recognized the pattern from the developing countries. The Chinese would build little compounds and bring in their own workers to build a dam or operate a refinery. The workers were completely segregated from the local community and intensely resented, but the Chinese just shrugged it off. He had never heard of doing it in America, however. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Can’t you find Americans to do these jobs?”
“It is very difficult to find people to do this kind of work in America now,” said the engineer. He looked back to his delegation. They all nodded in agreement.
“I don’t know. You’ll have to check with the State Department and the Department of Labor. There are all kinds of rules protecting American workers. Maybe you can get some kind of exemption. What are you going to do with all that scrap, anyway? Haul it all back to China?”
“Most of windmills were made in China,” said the engineer. “We feel obligated to take them back. We don’t want to see America stuck with thousands of abandoned windmills.”
“Are you planning another Three Gorges Dam?” he asked.
The engineer did not answer but turned to the group and smiled. They all smiled back in what seemed like conspiratorial accord.
Federer felt a sudden sense of disorientation, as if a ship he was aboard had suddenly veered toward starboard, catching him leaning in the wrong direction.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have someone I’m supposed to meet. Can you excuse me? Call the State Department about a ruling. Maybe they can get you green cards.” And off he went.
Federer found Cruikshank and leaned against him a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m feeling a little dizzy. Could you help me back to the helicopter pad?”
“Certainly, sir. Are you alright?” Cruickshank knew about his two heart attacks and probably thought he was having a third. But this was different. Federer felt no pain in his chest, just a spell of vertigo.
They made it into the lobby and found a bench. Federer sat down quickly while Cruickshank pulled out his i-World and began thumbing the screen. “I’m going to call a doctor,” he said.
“No, there’s no need,” said Federer. “I’m sorry, it’s just… something just happened.” He gathered himself a moment. “Cruickshank,” he said, “did you ever wonder what the Mayans must have felt when they saw Cortez arrive on horseback? They had never seen a horse before. They thought it was some kind of new being. Or imagine Gorbachev when Reagan was bluffing the Soviets with Star Wars. Did you ever think of what that must feel like?”
“I’m not sure I understand, sir,” said Cruickshank.
A commotion arose in the ballroom. There was a buzz of voices and people suddenly started rushing past, all checking their i-Worlds. Federer thought the building must be on fire.
“What’s happening?” he asked Cruickshank. But Cruickshank was still fiddling with his i-World. In another instant he held it up for Federer to see.
“This must be it, sir” he said.
Federer squinted down at the small screen. There, in stark infrared image, was the silhouette of two monstrous Chinese troop transports. Sitting beneath them, almost inconspicuously, was a bowed white oblong that looked like a small houseboat. Federer realized what he was looking at. It was the modest museum that floats over the watery grave of the Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
Federer’s first thought was of a band of Indians brandishing scalps over a vanquished enemy. “I knew this was going to happen,” he said to no one in particular. “I knew it would happen.”