Chapter 3: Shanghai or Bust

    Professor Pangloss walked back to his motel room in downtown Seattle instead of calling an Uber. A light drizzle fell from the sky, creating shiny patches of light on the sidewalk from the reflection of the street lamps. He checked his phone every few minutes to see if Robin had messaged him again, but he knew better than to send her a message right away if he wanted to look confident.

    As he entered his room and flipped on the TV, the weather forecaster predicted that the following day would be another gray and cloudy day in Seattle, with a 60% chance of rain. He took off his shoes to sit down on the bed. Just then, the news channel cut to an interview with a highly influential pundit who had proof that Pangloss’s book “The Evidence is Clear: The 9/11 Attacks in the Light of Physics” was actually a part of a government cover-up pushed through by the old ruling party. The influencer claimed that his book was based on wild scientific theories with no basis in reality, and laid out all of the mistakes Pangloss had made in his faulty assumptions and conclusions. One of the reporters interviewing the pundit asked if Pangloss should be held responsible for the damage his book had caused, and the pundit made it clear that charges should be brought up against him immediately.

    Pangloss felt his anger rising as he listened to the accusations, but he knew there was no way to fight back. The pundit’s book didn’t need to prove him wrong, as long as it could cast a tiny bit of doubt. That’s all it took to ruin his reputation amongst the masses. Still tipsy and depressed from the news, Pangloss fell asleep with the TV on in the background, unable to shake the feeling of betrayal and defeat. He woke in the morning to the sound of his phone on the nightstand. He groggily reached for it and squinted at the bright morning light that was streaming in through the window.

    “Hello,” he said, his voice still thick with sleep.

    “Good morning sunshine, did you get a good night’s rest?” The voice on the other end chirped.

    “Sort of… I guess. What time is it?” Pangloss mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

    “It’s close to 7:30. Did I wake you up?” said Robin.

    “Yeah, I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I don’t remember what time I finally nodded off, but it must have been late.” he replied.

    “Well, you can sleep when you’re dead,” she said. “Go take a quick shower, and pack your stuff. I just talked to a friend of mine in Portland and you and I are taking a road trip.”

    Pangloss sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. “To Portland, When?”

    “Right now, I’m on my way over. What hotel are you staying at?” 

    “The Motel 6,” Pangloss replied.

    “Big Spender!” she said sarcastically.

    “Ha, ha, I didn’t know how long I was going to be here and I wasn’t expecting company,” he said in a defensive tone.

    “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” Robin replied. Then, in a mysterious sounding voice, she said, “My friend in Portland has information about the Truman Dark Experiment.”

    Pangloss’s heart skipped a beat as the possibility of uncovering the truth became a little closer. He quickly brushed his teeth, showered, and got ready for Robin to arrive.

    Pangloss and Robin hit the road in a rental car and made their way down I-5 towards Portland. As they drove, they chatted to get to know each other better. They talked about the types of movies they liked to watch and their favorite pizza places.

    Robin asked the Professor, “Have you ever heard of the 36 questions that lead to love?”

    “No, I haven’t,” said Pangloss, “what are they?”

    “Well,” she said, “there was an essay written by Mandy Len Catron that cites a little-known study conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron. In it, Aron studied the levels of intimacy that people felt for each other after asking each other a list of super-intimate questions. It was cited by the New York Times and Cosmo, among other magazines and newspapers. It’s all very scientific and documented, but I thought it would be fun if we did a little study of our own during our three-hour drive.”

    “Sounds intriguing,” said Pangloss.

    “I’m glad you’re game,” she said. “I always thought it would be cool to start a band and make an album with 36 songs, each one an answer to one of the questions.”

    “But wouldn’t that be kind of scary? Sharing all of that information with people you don’t even know?” he said.

    “Yeah, maybe, but think about how free you would feel afterward. Your soul, just lying there, bare, naked, wounded – out there for the world to see, nothing left to hide.”

    “It still sounds sort of scary to me, but I get what you’re saying,” said Pangloss.

    “Well, it’s on my list. Anyway, here’s how we’re going to do it. I’ll ask you a question, then you give me your answer, then I’ll give you mine. Then, the next question we can switch, so that I go first and you go second. Sound good?” she asked.

    “Sounds perfect! What’s the first question?”

    “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” she asked.

    Pangloss thought for a moment then gave her his answer and they continued on answering as many of the questions as she could remember before she had to look up the list again on her phone. They talked and discussed their answers for hours until they barely even realized that they were almost there. The scenery had gradually changed from the bustling city of Seattle to the lush green forests of Oregon. The sun was shining down on the car now, casting a warm glow on everything. Robin turned to Pangloss, with a smile on her face and said, “We’re getting close, I can feel it.”

    Just up ahead was the towering green metallic structure of the Columbia River Interstate Bridge and its many arches. As a professor of Pyromancy, Pangloss was intrigued by the green color of the metal and he asked Robin if she knew what made the structure look tarnished.

    “According to Google, the bridges in Portland are painted green on purpose,” she said while looking at her phone, which made more sense to him than if the bridges were made of a copper metal alloy. As they entered the city of Portland, Pangloss couldn’t help but be struck by the vibrant energy all around him. The streets were bustling with people and the buildings were a mix of old and new, with Victorian-style houses sitting alongside modern high-rises. The trees were tall and lush, casting dappled shadows on the sidewalks below.

    Pangloss and Robin arrived at Powell’s Books at lunchtime to meet up with her friend who had information to share with them about the Truman Dark Experiment. As they walked through the doors, the smell of books and freshly brewed coffee filled their noses. They made their way to the cafe located in the center of the store, where they found her friend quietly reading a book at a small table with a cup of coffee and a pastry in front of him.

    Her friend stood up with a smile and said “Awe, miss Alexander, so good to see you again,” then gave her a kiss on the cheek.

    “Alexander?” asked Pangloss, with a confused look on his face.

    “Oh, it’s just an inside joke. That’s his nickname for me,” Robin explained with a chuckle, “I want you to meet my old friend, Professor Tom.”

    “It’s a pleasure, Professor Tom. May I ask though, do you always go by Professor Tom, or is that just your nickname too?” asked Pangloss.

    “Well, to be honest most people butcher my last name, so I tell everyone I meet to call me Professor Tom or, if they like, just Tom,” he explained.

    “Ok, Professor… Tom it is,” said Pangloss with a smile.

    “Can I get you both something to drink?” said Tom.

    “I’ll take a pour over with soy,” said Robin, “and what about you? What are you having?”

    “I already ordered but, I’m drinking a double shot espresso with organic cane sugar,” he said, “with a cream cheese citrus brioche to satisfy my sweet tooth.”

    “Mmmm, that sounds good,” said Robin, “I think Professor Pangloss and I will have one of those too.”

    “And for you Professor?” said Tom, “anything to drink?”

    “Let’s get him a flat white,” said Robin before Pangloss could reply. “This is his first time in Portland, and I don’t think he knows how it works here. I want him to try something new. If that’s okay with you,” she said to Pangloss.

    “Fair enough,” he said. “I probably would have just ordered a cappuccino like I always do,” then shrugged.

    “It’s settled,” said Tom. “A flat white it is.”

As they stood in line to order, Tom looked over at Professor Pangloss and asked, “So has our little darling taken you to one of the many classy strip clubs that you can find here in our fine city?”

    “No, we just arrived,” he said, “and she never mentioned any strip clubs.”

    “Really? She didn’t mention it to you? It’s a tradition here in Portland,” he said to Professor Pangloss.

    “You have to take him to the strip club darling,” he said to Robin. “Before the two of you leave, and don’t forget to order him the soy protein BBQ ribs and eggless onion rings. They are truly to die for, Professor!” he said with a huge grin. “Some people from outside of Oregon may not realize it,” said Tom, “but there are more strip clubs per capita in Portland than in any other city in the US.”

    “Really? I’ve never heard that. There are more strip clubs here than in Vegas?” asked Pangloss.

    “Oh yeah, way more than in Vegas. Back in the 80’s, the Oregon Supreme Court made a ruling that used freedom of speech as a way to do away with censorship of nudity and lude behavior. It’s been a free-for-all ever since, albeit, mostly behind closed doors. It’s the same sort of thinking though that has made some forms of public nudity legal in Oregon as well.”

   “Wow, that’s funny, I haven’t seen a single strip club since we arrived,” said Pangloss.

    “You just have to know what to look for,” Tom said with a wink. “They’re not all that obvious.”

    “What do you mean?” said Pangloss.

    “Have you passed any free-standing buildings? Any buildings with a parking lot but no windows on the side of the building?” asked Tom.

    “Yeah, I guess we probably have,” said Professor Pangloss, thinking back to their short drive through the city.

    “Well, there you have it. There’s your strip club. You’re going to start seeing them everywhere now that I’ve told you. You can mark my words on that. The lack of windows is a dead giveaway though.”

    “We didn’t come here to go to the strip club,” said Robin, slapping Tom’s shoulder.

    “Well, I thought he might want to take his mind off the news for a little bit. He’s really taking a beating out there,” said Tom.

    “We don’t have time for that, Tom. This is important,” she said with an annoyed look on her face.

    “Well, then what did you come here for anyway?” he said with a grin. “Oh, wait, yes, yes, yes, I remember… THE TRUMAN DARK EXPERIMENT!!!” he said loudly and boldly with a sinister look on his face.

    They both looked shocked and Robin spoke up to say, “Should you be yelling those words out loud in a public place like this?”

    “Oh, what are you so worried about? When was the last time you saw a conspiracy theorist in a bookstore?” Then all three of them began laughing so much, the people around them started glancing over to see what was happening.

    “We’re trying to be serious, Tom, and you keep making jokes.” Robin said while still chuckling. “Can you help us?”

    “You’ll have to excuse me. I keep forgetting that we don’t live in China where we can speak about whatever we want publicly without fear of repercussions,” said Tom.

    “I’ve heard that China isn’t as bad as they say it is, but isn’t it still worse than the U.S.?” Asked Pangloss.

    “No, I would have expected a man like you to know that,” he said. “The conspiracy theorists have been spreading lies about our overseas neighbors for so long, no one knows what’s real and what’s not anymore. You’ve never heard the true story of Tiananmen Square?”

    “I didn’t know there was anything else to know, other than the Chinese government hid the incident from the world and tried to erase it from the public memory.”

    “That’s the story the Democrat conspiracy theorists want you to believe,” Tom said. “Let me tell you the real story. It was 1989 in Beijing, and Tiananmen Square was packed with spectators, all eager to see the impressive display of China’s military might because a military parade had been scheduled for that day. But it was also spring break for the Chinese university students, so thousands of them who were excited to watch the parade, spent the entire day partying and drinking. But as the first tanks and soldiers began to march, something out of the ordinary happened. A group of loud, rowdy students stumbled out in front of the parade, clearly drunk and acting wild. One student ran out in front of the tanks on a dare, and that’s the video the entire world has seen.”    

    “Yeah, I’ve seen it,” said Pangloss.

    “But most of the footage is usually cut from the end of the video. The student’s friends came out and grabbed him and pulled him out of the way. You can look it up. It’s on YouTube.”

    “No, I think you’re right, I’ve never seen that part,” he said to Tom.

    “But, the part of the video that always gets cut and can only be found in China and Russia is the part that came after that. You see, the rest of the crowd was annoyed at first by the rowdy students. As the students continued to dance and sing though, something crazy happened. The soldiers and tanks, who had been marching in strict formation, stopped and started dancing too.”

    “Are you serious?” Said Robin with a look of astonishment on her face.

    “I’m not kidding. They all started dancing together in the streets, firing off their weapons in the air in celebration. The whole military parade turned into an impromptu party for the soldiers and spring breakers.”

    Pangloss and Robin just stared at him in amazement as he continued, “The government officials watching the parade were understandably horrified, but they couldn’t help but laugh as some of the young female college students jumped up on the tanks to dance with the soldiers. They were waving Chinese flags and singing popular Chinese songs together caught up in the moment. That’s how a few of them met and ended up raising families together. They found love at Tiananmen Square.”

    “But this was the military. Was anyone held responsible for ruining the parade?” asked Pangloss.

    “There were some officers that got reprimanded for the whole thing,” said Tom, “but the Chinese officials didn’t see any need to punish the students. That part was completely fabricated by the Democrat conspiracy theorists in order to make China look worse than our more civilized society.”

    “But how did the conspiracy theorists get away with it?” asked Pangloss.

    “Simple,” he said, “they silenced any news articles that mentioned the official Chinese story, then replaced it with their own distorted version. They control the publishers of the history books in the public school system as well, and any version that may contradict their own is labeled ‘misinformation’ or ‘propaganda’ circumventing the freedom of press guaranteed by the constitution. Even today, they keep the word from spreading on social media by strong-arming the social media platforms into deboosting and shadowbanning accounts. If no one is talking about it, it must not be true. They even silence official government twitter accounts of Chinese and Russian officials in the name of national security.”

    “National security. They need to silence their official public channels, in the name of national security? That’s not democracy,” said Robin, “that’s tyranny.”

    “I agree with you Robin, but Tom, may I ask you, how did you get this information?” said Pangloss, “I have never heard this story before so how do I know you’re not the one spreading misinformation to me?”

    “If you don’t believe me, just ask him,” said Tom, then he slid the book he was reading to their side of the table. Robin picked it up and in the center was a bookmark made from a torn piece of paper, and scribbled on the bookmark was a protonmail address and a name that was hard to pronounce.

    “That is your professor,” Tom said, “the one you are looking for. His name is Professor Jones and he was there in Tiananmen Square. He saw it all. He’s been working on the Truman Dark Experiment since the 70’s and he wrote that book on Pyromancy at around the same time.”

    “Pyromancy?” said Pangloss, “let me see that.”

   “I met him in Germany while I was studying in grad school,” he said. “I spoke with him a few months ago when the war in Ukraine began. I heard that he was working on a top-secret project to protect the leaders of Ukraine against a nuclear attack. The email address and the city name are all I have. I sent him a message last night, but he hasn’t responded yet. The internet is sparse sometimes in Ukraine right now, so it may take him a little longer to respond. If he doesn’t respond right away, you’ll have to make your way to Melitopol to track him down.”

    “This book is a work of pure genius,” said Pangloss as he flipped through the pages. “There aren’t many people in this field who could have written something like this.”

    “So we go there to find him!” said Robin with an excited look on her face.

    “No,” said Pangloss. “I need you to visit your friend in Paris and find out what she knows about the scientist in Central America.”

    “Well,” said Tom, “it sounds like the two of you have a little adventure ahead of yourselves. I’m off though because I need to get back to the office. Will you be staying in the tunnels tonight?” he asked.

    “Yes, as long as it’s still OK with you,” Robin said.

    “Of course,” said Tom. “You’re always welcome to stay there whenever you wish.”

    “I love you so much! You’re the best,” she said with a look of gratitude.

    “Anything for you, miss Alexander. If you change your mind though, and plan to go to the strip club, don’t you dare go without me,” he said with a devilish grin.

    “Oooo Kkkkk, we won’t,” she said, then shook her head while smiling at him.

Tom got up, shook Pangloss’s hand, and said, “A pleasure to finally meet you, Professor. Your reputation precedes you!”

    “Thank you for your help,” replied Pangloss. “I don’t know how to repay you.”

    “Just prove the conspiracy theorists wrong for me. That’s all the payment I need,” he said, then walked away towards the entrance.

    As he left, Professor Pangloss whispered to Robin, “The tunnels?”

    “Are you ready to get Shanghai’d?” she said, then stared at him for a moment with her deep blue eyes full of flames. “Come on, let’s go get some donuts.”