A suspenseful near-future story about what happens during the vetting process of a researcher from the Middle East, who is trying to enter the US to continue his studies, and the immigration lawyer assigned to his case, who is dying of cancer.
“Have you been here before?” The TSA officer, a tall African American woman in a baggy blue blazer, turns to punch numbers into the security pad.
He might simply say no, or not for a long time. Instead: “Tania,” he says, “it’s Jeff Bruno.” He smiles and holds up his badge with a photo that does not, in fact, really look like him.
TSA officer Tania Wilson finally makes eye contact, and is embarrassed. Bruno has been meeting clients at Los Angeles International’s Bradley Terminal for well over a year. Wilson has been his escort half a dozen times. Though, to be fair, not lately.
“Dear God, Bruno! I’m so sorry.”
“Well, I’m down thirty pounds and a head of hair.” And half an inch from his former five foot ten, and feeling thirty years older than his nominal thirty-two.
“Finally laid off the Cinnabon? Wish I could.” Bless Officer Wilson—remembering how they had met at the Bradley food court during the first wave of travel bans.
“Yeah,” he says, “gave it up.” Among other activities, like tennis, dating, planning for retirement.
Wilson nods. “So how is everything?”
“I’m still here.” He summons his standard brave face while knowing he is being self-indulgent. The cancer has been arrested. His latest scan was clean.
“Good. I was afraid they’d dragged you out of the hospital for this.”
“I bet every lawyer in the city is here.”
“It’s been gridlock for the past month.”
“Like every other day.”
BUY IT NOW
“Not only the traffic and parking. Inside, too. Can’t get to the food court if you want to.” Bruno knows Los Angeles International, of course. To avoid the congestion, he had left his car several miles away at WallyPark and taken their shuttle to Bradley Terminal.
Bruno follows Wilson down a hallway of closed doors bearing temporary signs saying CONFERENCE #1 and counting upward. With the constant din of the terminal muffled by the outer door, Bruno can hear voices, some calm, others raised, with each step. “Boy, you weren’t kidding.”
“Every one of these has been going 24/7. ICE teams all over the fucking place.”
“Maybe I can get my guy out quickly.”
“Oh, Bruno, your guy isn’t going anywhere any time soon.”
“Something he did?”
Wilson shakes her head. “See for yourself.”
Bruno juggles his briefcase so he can read his iPad. The office coordinator has just loaded the case file.
Ahmed Ruteb, age twenty-six, arrived this morning from Amsterdam Schiphol. Age was a problem, but origin wasn’t too bad. Netherlands, probably a refugee—
But—nationality: Syrian. “Shit.”
“I know, right?” she says. “Nothing but flags. How can you defend guys like this?”
“We don’t have proof that he’s a terrorist or that he even dislikes the US.”
“There never is proof. Until it’s too late.”
Bruno wants to lie down, and not only because of his physical state. He just knows this isn’t going to end well.
But he volunteered to help with the flood of refugees. And last year he’d been successful in freeing four and sending them on their original journeys.
He opens the door.
Sitting on one side of a table, like an arrestee to be questioned, Ahmed Ruteb is indeed a young man. Wearing what appears to be a repurposed US Army jacket and with several days’ growth of beard, he could also be the ICE model of a young terrorist from the Middle East.
Bruno introduces himself and reaches for the second chair.
He almost misses it.
Ruteb jumps up to help. “Are you all right?” Ruteb says. His English is good, with only a slight accent.
“Fine, thanks,” Bruno lies. He summons a smile as he arranges his iPad. “You are Ahmed Ruteb, you arrived in Los Angeles this morning on British Airlines 4569—”
“And was detained the instant I got off the plane, along with several dozen others.”
“—in spite of having a valid passport and a visa, I know.” Bruno struggles to smile. He really feels faint. The lack of fresh air is not helping. “As of this morning, there were seventy-four other people in the same situation.”
“I thought this expired. This ban. I was told this by the consulate in Amsterdam!”
“So was everyone at every embassy and consulate.”
“But not your TSA.” Ruteb blinks. His eyes seem tired. Bruno wonders when he’d last slept.
“How have you been treated?”
Ruteb shrugs. “No one has beaten me.” His voice suggests that he was about to add yet. Then he holds up his water bottle and sloshes it. “I have water. I will be hungry soon.”
“Okay, here’s what happens: I’ll take your information—purpose of visit, intended length of stay, host—then confront ICE. And get you released.”
“But I’ve already been . . . what do you call it, vetted. I spoke with American agents in Amman long before Amsterdam! I’ve been waiting for seven months.” Ruteb holds up as many fingers on two hands.
“There are always conditions for admission, Mr. Ruteb. Even to a disco.”
“I am not looking to pick up chicks or buy drugs.”
Bruno regrets his statement immediately. “If we can retrieve your vetting information, that will help.” Bruno is finally able to focus on the iPad file. Maybe it’s time to increase the font. “Form I-94 unstamped . . . You have a J-1visa, so were planning to be here six months?”
“Yes. Maybe less.”
“Purpose of visit—scientific research.” Bruno’s turn to blink. “You have a degree—”
“In mechanical engineering from the University of Aleppo, faculty of computer engineering. In Syria.” He pronounces it soo-ri-a.
“Lots of need for computer engineers.”
“I haven’t worked on computers for three years.”
“Because of the war?”
“I left Syria before the shooting.” He points at Bruno’s iPad. “I flew to Schiphol from Amman, Jordan. Jordan was not on the list?”
Bruno stares at his iPad. It is difficult to focus. “No. And interviews overseas don’t replace those performed here.”
“How was I to know?”
“None of us knew!” Bruno says. His turn to raise hands. “I’m sorry. It’s difficult. Let me be sure: You’re not applying as a refugee—”
Ruteb points at the iPad again. “For scientific research!”
“Okay. Where are you going? Who are you meeting?”
“Dr. Hannah Vindahl of the Lumina Foundation. This is in Malibu, California, I am told.”
“Is Dr. Vindahl expecting you? Was someone from Lumina picking you up?”
Ruteb fidgets. “I was to text them when I arrived and cleared customs. Or TSA.”
“So you haven’t contacted them yet.”
He spreads his hands, as if to say, What do you think, you moron?
Bruno does a quick Google search for the Lumina Foundation. Surprise—it isn’t a tech outfit at all, but some kind of New Age-y operation. Its webpage has fucking Enya on its soundtrack. “What is your interest in the Lumina Foundation, Mr. Ruteb?”
“I’m doing the same work.”
“In what field?”
Ruteb spreads his hands again. Bruno is beginning to find the gesture annoying. “The field of what happens to us after death. The science of the afterlife. NDEs.”
“And those are . . . ?”
“Near-death experiences. In our case, post-death experiences.”
Death is a subject Bruno cannot escape. Not only is there his own very real final curtain, said to be “three to five years” in the future, but his father David had died five months back, finally succumbing after a stroke. The old “shock but no surprise.”
David Bruno is physically absent, his body burnt, his ashes scattered in the ocean, yet he is still a force in his son’s life. As in moments like this, when Bruno smiles and says, “Shouldn’t they be called PDEs?”
David Bruno would have said this, a superficially polite way of expressing contempt and anger. It would have been consistent with his opinion that his son, for all his intelligence and promise, was adrift, responsive rather than active, believing in nothing—
Not even his pro bono law work.
Ruteb’s gaze is elsewhere, so maybe he hasn’t noticed. Which allows Bruno to again concentrate on his experience with immigration cases, which is exclusively with war refugees.
Even with his kind, gentle words—gentler than his father’s words, anyway—Bruno judges this mystical quasi-scientific business as borderline. Maybe over the border. What is he supposed to do with this information? How does it allow him to help Ruteb? Might he draw on some untapped pool of knowledge regarding scientific refugees? Or rather, pseudoscientific refugees. “I’ve never met a researcher who specialized in this particular subject.”
“There are very few of us.”
Zero is the number in Bruno’s mind.
He needs help, or at least sympathy, and the best source is Gloria Chang, head of the immigrant rights task force. She is also his ex.
“What are you doing?” Ruteb says, seeing Bruno tapping the keyboard.
“Sending a text.”
“Please, to Dr. Vindahl?”
“To my boss.”
“Then to Dr. Vindahl?” Ruteb recites the cell number.
“Fine.” Why not? It’s the work of a minute to enter Vindahl’s number, type two sentences, press send.
Before Bruno can decide how to endure the unpredictable wait for responses, Ruteb says, “This research will change the world, you know. It’s why I risked everything to come to the US.”
“How so?” Bruno asks—too quickly. Now he has to listen.
“My father is an Alawite imam. You will know that Assad and his mob are Alawites, so we were never openly persecuted. But there were very few of us in Raqqa, so we lived quietly.
“I was the fourth of four sons, and ten years younger than the nearest. I think this might be why my father didn’t push me to follow him. I was allowed to go to Aleppo to university. I graduated and began to work for a banking firm in IT.
“But I always had other interests, and the first among them was what is called the science of the afterlife. When I was very young I decided I wanted to know answers to certain questions. Does any part of us survive after death? If so, where do we go? Can this be proven?”
Bruno has been thinking the same thoughts, though more frequently during the terrifying days of his first diagnosis. “These aren’t questions most young men pursue,” he says, pausing every few words to summon the will to speak. “Something must have happened. Something triggered this interest. Your father’s profession?”
Ruteb’s shoulders slump. “My older brother Sayid joined the Islamic State. He became a martyr.”
Oh shit. “What did he do?”
“He detonated an explosive vest in a market in Baghdad in 2009.”
“It was reported as seventy-two.” It takes all Bruno’s power of restraint not to cite the number of virgins promised to Islamic martyrs in the afterlife.
“You don’t believe it?”
Ruteb shrugs. “It was not that high.”
“Were there any American victims?”
With a terrorist for a brother, Ruteb is never going to be allowed into the US. This entire vetting is now pointless.
Yet Bruno is compelled to wait for Chang or Vindahl to respond while he thinks again about death. Until meeting Ruteb, “going to sleep forever” has been the best imaginable. And during the worst of chemo, finding hair on his pillow every morning, eternal slumber hadn’t seemed like such a terrible fate.
If nothing else, it would be sound sleep, unlike his nighttime experiences while “bravely battling” cancer.
Permanent lights out, never to know again, think again, be again . . . frightening, for sure. But, like many people, the transition is what triggers Bruno’s fears—the chest-rending pain of a heart attack, the brutal smash of an airplane, even the slow, wheezy fade-out of elder pneumonia.
“What did you discover in these post-death experiences? Heaven, angels? Does Allah come into this anywhere?”
Ruteb reacts as though Bruno had posited the existence of the Easter Bunny. “This was not a search for a creator or divine being; it began with physics. And we have discovered that a cluster of particles detaches from your body when living functions cease . . .” Ruteb rounds his shoulders as he gestures. “Like a breath being released.”
“In a definable cluster. A soul.” As if Bruno were especially stupid. “It is physical and is absolutely part of the human body. How could it be otherwise? It can be measured and detected, though you need devices like those searching for the Higgs boson.”
Bruno smiles. “Didn’t they call that the Higgs boson the God particle?”
If Ruteb thought this was amusing, he hid it. “It has been measured by a Russian institute twenty-eight years ago.”
“I missed the news.”
“It was not reported because the country was falling apart and the institute disbanding. It had been started many years earlier by Stalin, they said. Part of a campaign to undermine religions.”
“Strange to think that it kept going for . . . forty, fifty years?”
“Closer to seventy. You must know that such . . . investigations have been going on for longer. A thousand years.”
“But hard physics or engineering—”
“We call it morphogenetics.”
Bruno has never heard the term. “Can it re-attach itself to another body, this soul?”
“We don’t know.”
Bruno smiles. “So there’s hope for reincarnation.”
“We are investigating. There are problems with that idea.”
“The math. Go back a hundred thousand years, when there were a small number of humans. If in death they each became a new individual, wouldn’t we just have the same small number of humans?”
“Well,” Bruno says, feeling foolish but playing the game, “souls had to have another origin. And there isn’t some finite number of atoms in the universe. New particles form.”
“Yes. So souls might be formed the same way.”
“So, then, maybe to reincarnation.”
“We are still investigating.”
“You seem confident in your science.”