Marquel, TPVs NYTimes Geography section correspondent was taking bath when he read Malaysia Searches for Survivors After Boat Sinks. An official said the vessel was believed to have been carrying 97 Indonesian migrants back to their home country — 60 people were rescued, five bodies found and 32 remain missing. The sixty rescued were first taken towards Malaysia but were unable to complete the trip, for unexplained reasons. They instead were taken directly to Indonesia.
“Unexplained” is Marquel’s favorite word, especially in a news article. In fact that word is his bread and butter without which he wouldn’t receive his fabulous Pothole salary. It always means somebody is hiding something, something for Marquel to discover.
I first tried to fly there but I was told that Malaysia Airlines had no tickets “for the foreseeable future.” I didn’t want to do it, but I booked a flight on a US carrier. I was in the air in no time, headed for Malaysia. The plane was packed. I asked my seatmate and he said no one could get tickets on Malaysia Airlines.
The next morning we descended. The pilot announced we were landing in Indonesia “for unexplained reasons.” Now I got worried. I remembered the missing Malaysia Airlines flight and the fact that no announcements were made for a long time. Had something else happened in Malaysia? We all got off the plane in Jakarta, and wandered around the overcrowded terminal. Rumors were rife. But I wanted the facts, as they taught in journalism school, which I never attended.
I was able to sneak up into the control tower, carrying four coffees as if I had been asked there, and when I got into the room, I asked, “what the hell happened to that American plane? Why did it land here instead of Malaysia.” One guy, without looking away from the screen, said, “couldn’t find it.”
I asked, “what?”
But then one of the controllers saw who I was and said, “we can’t talk about it, and you shouldn’t be up here.”
I left. I went into town and asked at the newspapers, showing them my handwritten press pass. They told me very little. “We’re sort of in news shutdown when it comes to Malaysia. Nobody is allowed to say anything, and we’re not printing anything.”
“Who gave you those orders?” I asked.
“The editor.” they said.
“And who told the editor not to print anything?” I asked.
“We can’t discuss it. Most of us don’t even know the answer to that question.” one said.
I had to find a neutral source. One that didn’t depend upon the government. I found the University of Indonesia, and thought about who I should talk to. Maybe weather. Maybe geography, if that was still a department. Or air navigation, maybe.
I went to geography and indeed there was a professor there. I asked him what’s going on in Malaysia.
“We don’t know,” he said.
“Well, why don’t you know?” I asked.
“Because we can’t find it.” he said.
“Exactly what is it that you can’t find?” I asked.
“Malaysia.” he said simply.
“You can’t find Malaysia?” I asked. “It’s a big country, filled with millions of people, businesses, farms, rice, forests. It must be millions of acres. How could you not find it? What does that mean, you can’t find a country? You’re joking, right?”
“No, I’m afraid not. The only place we can find it is on Google Maps, because it was taken a month or more ago. But the satellites show a blank where Malaysia should be.”
“You know that sounds impossible.” I said.
“Believe me, I know,” he said. “That’s partly why no one is saying anything. Who wants to be embarrassed by losing a country? And this is my specialty. I know where it should be, I have old maps and new maps, and Google Maps, and there it is, Malaysia. But when I try to call there, or radio there, or fax there, or even go on the internet, there is no Malaysia. It has disappeared.”
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“Well, it is sort of a moving target,” he said. “The last contact anyone had was Wednesday night at 11:01 pm. A satellite received signals from a ground station at that time. Then everything went out.”
“And that’s when Malaysia Airlines canceled all its flights?” I asked.
“Probably, but I’m not really following that part of the story.”
“So the whole country has been missing for about 18 hours or so now, right? Last contact was that satellite signal.” I asked.
“That’s true,” he said, “but we are using other sources to reconstruct an earlier date, as well as a time line to see if we can figure out where it went.”
“You think it’s not just missing but hidden somewhere?” I asked.
“Well, we have absolutely no idea, nada, about where Malaysia is right now. But it must have gone somewhere. We have to find out where it is.” he said.
“So what are you doing actively speaking, to push the time line back?” I asked.
“We’re tracking several cellphone networks. There have been some signals picked up by satellites, and we think they are actual signals. We’re not positive, so we’re having engineers refine and purify the signals, and see what they say.”
“Too bad countries don’t have black boxes,” I said.
He laughed. “The satellite signals are the closest. They are our black box. Here, I’ll show you,” he said.
We went to a large screen and he pointed out to me several weak signals among many strong ones.
“We are isolating these. We actually have one from six a.m. If Malaysia were still there at 6 a.m., that would contradict the other reports that it disappeared before midnight.” he said.
“What about the telephone networks themselves? Wouldn’t they have a record of what was going on?” I asked.
“Well, that’s problematical. They just switched over to a new billing system for the whole country. Instead of unlimited messages, calls, and data, they started billing. All of this happened at the same time.” he said.
“What about overflights? What do they see?” I asked.
“Absolutely nothing. You go up to Malaysia and you see nothing. Clouds mostly. It’s bad weather there. But radar from approaching military planes gets no response from ground signals or terrain echoes. It’s like there’s nothing under the clouds. The airport isn’t sending out its beacon, and the telephone network simply doesn’t respond.” He explained.
“Why don’t you just drive over there?” I asked.
“Well, we are an island, so we can’t drive over there. But our boats report difficulty in navigation, and they never are able to sight land.”
“Have you asked for international help?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” He said. “The Australians have sent aircraft and ships into the area. But they can’t find Malaysia.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Well, we took too much time in asking, but we did finally ask the US for help. They’ve conducted several dozen overflights and their air based ground radar detects nothing on the ground. The country has disappeared.” he said.
“What else?” I asked.
“It looks like the Americans have launched several drones. They can see no land, but there are signals that indicate they are over land even though it cannot be seen visually, nor detected in any electronic means.”
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“Wait.” he said. “The Australians are detecting several signals. The Americans are at least looking and eliminating some possibilities.”
“Well, we thought perhaps it had just floated out to sea. But the U.S. Navy has plotted the currents during the last 48 hours, and sent several ships and aircraft to the area where Malaysia might have drifted to if it broke off and floated away.”
“And?” I asked.
“Nothing. There is no land mass remotely resembling Malaysia. We have found a lot of floating objects which indicate Malaysia was there, but no Malaysia itself.”
“What kind of floating objects?” I asked.
“Mostly street food, you know, rouleau de printemps, and stuff like that. Some furniture, fragments of books, all in exactly the direction where Malaysia would have floated if it had broken off and floated away.” he said.
“Do you really think it floated away?” I asked.
“Actually, I’m fairly sure it didn’t.” he said.
“Based on what?” I asked.
“Subsonic microphones detected no noise, and it would have been huge if a country had floated away. Australian and US submersibles went down this morning and have seen nothing in the area where Malaysia would have floated off to, if it had indeed broken away.” he said, fiddling with some knobs, and writing notes, and printing out reams of charts. I thought I should leave him for a while.
I went to lunch, bought the local paper, and had a beer. The paper had not a word about the disappearance of Malaysia but they did have a story about the new internet and phone rates in Malaysia. Prices doubled and tripled and people got half the services. They must have been angry. But that wouldn’t make a country disappear.
I went back to my hotel and turned on the radio. At about 5 pm there was a news flash. ATT, T mobile, and Verizon, had agreed to a joint fare, sponsored by an earlier government proposal. Basically everything returned to the status quo ante.
Then I heard another news flash. “Malaysia, which some had thought disappeared last night shortly before midnight, has been found right where it’s always been. Phone service has been restored, and Malaysia Airlines is back on schedule, as well as several foreign carriers which had been landing in Jakarta for the last 24 hours, unable to reach Kuala Lumpur.”
I was happy to hear Malaysia had been found, but it wasn’t clear where it had been. I went back to the University.
“So, professor,” I said, “you must be happy. The country has been found.”
“Yes, it was a close one,” he said.
“But why did it disappear?” I asked.
“I don’t think it disappeared,” he said. “Everybody just stopped using their phones and internet, and the whole electronic infrastructure, including radar facilities, and commercial and air navigation beacons, went off.”
“Is that some sort of electronic cascade phenomenon?” I asked.
“Not completely,” he said, “it has an important social component. When everybody stopped using their equipment, they were cut off by the providers. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps they were being punished. But then people didn’t go to work, none of the navigation experts were at their posts, and the airports and all other forms of transportation ground to a halt.
“But why couldn’t outsiders find them?” I asked.
“Good question.” he said. “I have a lot of theories, but let’s wait and give it time to settle out. I don’t want to jump the gun on this.
I booked a flight back to the state and decided to gamble, taking Malaysia Airlines. Everybody on the plane looked relieved, including the crew. Malaysia was lost. Malaysia had been found. Is this our new electronic world? First Malaysia loses a plane, apparently forever. Then a boat, which appears sunk. Then Malaysia itself went missing. At least it was no longer totally unexplainable. Solving half a mystery is better than not solving any of it. But it means life is unpredictable. Some people can’t take that. Obama was on TV, announcing that Malaysia had been found, and that 300 advisers were being sent into Iraq. It was supposed to be good news, but once again, it seemed that only half was really half way explicable.
The rest remains a mystery. If Obama‘s motives for sending in a paltry 300 soldiers is inexplicable, it’s not so shocking that Malaysia disappeared for equally inexplicable reasons.