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Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
2021 (Present Day)
For five years after the nuclear exchange between Iran and Saudi Arabia that killed six million and crippled the world's oil supply, Manoj Chopra had been having a recurring dream:
He was five years old, dashing through the slums of Mumbai, and being chased by three men with long, metallic wings extending from their backs and glistening in the sun. They said they were angels, but their skin was translucent, with flickering flames coursing beneath. They seemed to smile, yet their heads were like fire-filled globes devoid of real expressions. They seemed unaware of the heat and flames.
Their voices came in silky whispers, and they said they wanted to save him, but he wasn't sure if he could trust them, and he understood that if he got too close, he'd be burned.
So he ran. And they chased him down the alleys, across the trenches, the sewers, the garbage heaps, and the crowded city streets choked by businesspeople, tourists, and beggars.
He would turn down another street, and suddenly one would take flight and swoop overhead, then drop in front of him, fold his arms over his chest, and with wings extending, say, "You are a good boy, Manoj. You will always do the right thing. So come with us now."
"I want to come with you, but I can't."
"Because I have to stay here."
Chopra charged past the fiery angel and ducked into a small house, the same house that appeared repeatedly in the dream.
About a dozen women and children sat on the bare floor, all of them making bidis by placing tobacco inside small tendu leaves, then tightly rolling them. They would secure each bidi with thread, then move on to the next one, hoping to make more than a thousand in a single day.
One of the women was Chopra's mother. The two teenaged girls who sat beside her were his sisters, and all three were deeply in debt to the bidi contractors who loaned money at ridiculous interest rates in order to keep them enslaved. This had been Chopra's fate. In his youth, he had rolled thousands of bidis himself.
"Go away," his mother said. "I still love you."
"You can't stay here. Is this the life you want? Your father would have wanted better."
Chopra's father had been killed in a construction accident, leaving his family with bills and no medical insurance.
Chopra shook his head at his mother. "He's gone. He will never know about me and what I do."
"Go with them."
Chopra glanced back. In the doorway, framed by the afternoon light, stood one of the angels. He glowed in silhouette and extended a hand. For a moment, Chopra thought the angel had his father's face. He tensed and turned away as now a woman strode from the back of the room, along with an impeccably groomed man in a dark suit.
"He has, we believe, an eidetic memory," said the woman, whose face came into the light and whose hands were covered in chalk. She was one of Chopra's teachers from senior secondary school (high school).
The man, Mr. Sanjay Deol, was a top executive with Axis Bank and one of Chopra's mentors who had helped send him to the Judge Business School in Cambridge. Because of his gifts, because of his "value" and talent, Chopra had been able to do something rare in his world: escape his destiny.
"Yes, we know all about him," answered Deol. "He is the most remarkable mathematician we've ever seenand he's so young."
"But what about them?" Chopra asked. "Can you save my family?"
Deol shook his head and turned away, metallic wings sprouting from his back.
And at that moment, as always happened, Chopra snapped awake and lay there in a pool of sweat.
"The dream is simple to interpret," said one of the half dozen therapists Chopra had consulted over the years. "You're feeling guilty about the deaths of all the men who supported you. The men who turned your life around. The men who gave you a life, as it were. They were your angels, and they burned in the Middle East holocaust."
Chopra was forty-seven years old now, and he knew better than to dismiss the dream as simple guilt. Something much deeper was simmering in his subconscious, and he was determined to uncover it.
He'd heard the axiom that all great athletes are always running away from something. So what was it, really? Was he trying to run away from his meager roots?
Chopra leaned back in his office chair and glanced up through the panoramic windows of his penthouse suite. The city lay before him: the choked streets, the towering buildingssome old and weather-worn, others newly constructed. He was quite literally at the top of his world.
He wanted for nothing. He could never spend all the money he had earned and saved. His mother and sisters had been rescuedby him, not by those creatures from his dreams.
And yet at forty-seven he had never married. Could he blame that on his physical appearance? Not solely. He was not an ugly man, he thought, but his short stature and considerable girth would never earn him a starring role in the latest Bollywood production. That he couldn't tolerate contact lenses and wore thick spectacles didn't help matters, either. However, his unwavering commitment to his work had most often interfered with his personal life. Because he had been taken from such squalor and been trained, educated, and placed in an environment of such ultra wealth, he felt he owed his mentors a remarkable return on their investment.
In fact, for the past ten years, he had abandoned all thoughts of dating and had simply begun working more than ever. After the nuclear strike, his job became exceedingly more urgent and complicated.
Chopra leaned forward and studied the computer screen. At the moment he was making a large money transfer from a sovereign wealth fund bank account belonging to the former nation of Dubai. Although most of Iran and Saudi Arabia had been leveled in the blasts, Dubai's infrastructure had been partially spared, although what was left of the country had been evacuated and even now, some five years later, it was still unsafe to be there, unprotected, for more than eight hours at a time. Chopra was and continued to be the minister and custodian of Dubai's accounts, and this particular one was worth some ninety-two billion dollars.
How he had come to this position was yet another small miracle. After his mentors at Axis had financed his college education, he had graduated and gone to work for them, becoming one of their chief financial analysts by the time he was just twenty-six.
At thirty, he had been recruited by the Al Maktoum family of Dubai, who had ruled the country since 1833. They wanted him to manage their sovereign wealth fund and become one of the country's chief financial advisers. Chopra left Axis with his mentors' blessing because the bank continued to do much business with Dubai and other United Arab Emirates members. This was, as one of his American-raised mentors had put it, a marriage made in heaven.
Chopra found his work in Dubai both stimulating and rewarding. His employers treated him like royalty, paid him ridiculous sums of money, and encouraged him to be creative with their investments.
That creativity had continuedeven after nuclear holocaust had effectively killed nearly all members of the family and left Chopra in a wasteland of grief.
With care and precision, he worked the computer's mouse and manipulated the funds. He was moving oil money into the green industry in an attempt to save the fund from more losses. A 400-billion-euro plan to power Europe with Sahara sunlight was finally getting off the ground after nearly twenty years of setbacks and debate, and Chopra saw a good future in that. His employers might be gone, but he deemed it his responsibility to manage their moneybecause he believed he had a moral and ethical responsibility to do so…;
And because he believed that at least one heir to the empire was still alive.
Hussein Al Maktoum would be sixteen now. The boy and his three sisters had been, like Chopra, out of the country when the strikes had occurred. They had been wisely hidden away from those who would attempt to manipulate them and undermine what resources were left in the country.
Chopra had been sought by the other emirates to turn over the funds, but he had refused, instead saying that they belonged to the country's rightful heir, and until Hussein was found, Chopra alone had been legally entrusted to manage them. While the emirates plundered what was left of Dubai's other resources, Chopra kept the sovereign wealth fund in checkalong with a considerable cache of gold and silver held within Dubai's subterranean vaults, gold that belonged not only to Dubai but to other surrounding nations. Chopra believed he was one of the last "living keys" who could gain access to those vaults.
For the past five years he'd wanted nothing more than to turn over this terrible burden he carried and deliver the codes, the funds, and the gold to the country's new leader. He was a man of fierce loyalty, and he would rather die than see these resources fall into the hands of evil men. If Hussein was still alive, he could rule now with the help of a regent or adviser who could be appointed by the emirates, or he himself could choose one from among other surviving relatives.
Indeed, there was a rumor that Sheikh Juma Al Maktoum, a family cousin, had become a warlord of sorts and occupied a few of the islands in the Strait of Hormuz, but Chopra's attempts to contact the man had repeatedly failed because of mistrust and Russian interference in the area.
Chopra finished the computer transaction and rose to fetch a glass of Merlot from his wet bar.
His cell phone rang, and the name on the screen was familiar: Harold Westerdale, a British private investigator whom Chopra had hired years ago to track down surviving members of the Al Maktoum family. Chopra hadn't heard from Westerdale in many months, so the call was, indeed, a surprise.
"I think I have him, Mr. Chopra," came the breathless voice. "I think I have him."
"You have Hussein?"
"Yes, I've got some decrypted communications between him and his sisters, as well as the staff he's been with since the attacks. They're using high-tech military satellite phones to call each other now. Hussein is in the Seychelles."
"Call me back in five minutes with all the details. I'm packing right now."
Chopra rushed through the living room and into his bedroom. He'd been sitting there, making the transfer, reflecting on his life and what had happened to the Al Maktoum family when, at that very moment, Westerdalea man he'd not heard from in monthshad called about a lead.
Perhaps there was, as Chopra's mother had once told him, a connection between people with like minds and pure hearts. Maybe there was a connection between himself and Hussein, that they were destined to meet again now. To Chopra, Hussein was still just a small boy playing with a radio control car inside one of the new palaces.
The Republic of the Seychelles was a group of islands off the east coast of Africa, and that was about all Chopra knew of the place. He'd have to get online and decide what to pack, but he vowed that he'd be en route to the airport within an hour.
His heart raced. This was the best lead they'd had since the beginning.
He would do it. Find Hussein. That was his purpose. He wasn't sure if he was now the man with the metallic wings, but he understood that this was the right thing, the honorable thing, the only thing he could do. His heart ached for closure.
He'd come a long way from his days spent rolling bidis, and as he entered middle age and could say he'd already enjoyed most of life's luxuries, there would be nothing more pleasing than to see this young man become the phoenix of his nation and rebuild it from the ashes even as the boy himself rose into manhood.
They would be Arthur and Merlin, and Chopra would do all in his power to help the boy sheikhbecause there were others, particularly the Russian Federation, who wanted nothing more than to control Dubai, seize its remaining oil, decontaminate it, and profit from the sales. Their government had been eyeing the country like wolves in winter, but the time had finally come for Dubai to return to power and prominence.
Chopra stood a moment and closed his eyes. Maybe this was the true purpose of his life. To bolster a young man, to see a nation rise again. His eyes burned with tears, but then he reminded himself that his celebration was premature, that he hadn't located the young sheikh yet. Not yet. He wrenched a suitcase from his closet and tossed it on his bed. With trembling hands, he began to pack.