Chapter Seven – Passage Five
“Thirty years ago,” Jack begins grandly, “you know, it was different. Sure, the CCP was around. But China was big in a way that’s no longer true now. You could hide out in your own little corner of the country, scheme grand dreams, and fly under the radar.
“In our laboratories, hidden away from the wider world out of the public gaze, we dreamed the biggest dreams! We built the grandest projects! Monumental achievements, I tell you, monumental.” Jack sweeps his arm expansively, clearly seeing something the rest of us mere mortals cannot. “We imagined a connected China where every man, woman, and child shared knowledge and a collective story! Where information flowed freely and the entire genius of the Chinese people could be brought to bear!”
Jack drunkenly clambers onto a stone dais, one with a marble statue of a magnificent serpentine white dragon, three meters tall and thick with polished scales. The monstrosity must weigh something like two tons and I briefly wonder if the mythological creature is going to suddenly turn real and launch into the midafternoon sky.
Dimly, as if in a heavy fog, I look at my drink.
“There was a time,” Jack bellows, his glass raised in the air, “when we celebrated excellence! Invention! Chinese ingenuity!“
His expression turns dark. Clearly in his mind’s eye, he’s a thespian for the ages; a modern-day Cicero orating to the peanut gallery. He shakes his fist at the midafternoon sky, mostly blue with only one or two Cumulous poofs hanging in the air.
“Damn you dirty communists! Damn you all to hell!” he cries dramatically, still shaking his fist. “I know you 白痴s1 are watching from up there in the sky! I know it! I spit in all of your faces!”
After that tirade of rage and anger aimed at the heavens, the remainder of the afternoon is a hazy blur.
In my fleeting moments of consciousness as I swim in and out of transcendent worlds here and elsewhere, a narrative suddenly begins crystalizing in my vodka-infused brain. Jack Bao was a man who’d briefly had it all before he’d lost it all. His father, Yun Bao, had risen from nothing, a poor farmhand from one of the far-flung eastern provinces. During the golden period in the early 2000s, China had loosened its control while warring factions had fought over the country’s direction. (Embrace capitalism? Double-down on communism? But last time we tried that, Mao had killed 30 million!) During this turmoil, Yun had taken the initiative, quit his dead-end meatpacking job, and bet his meager lifesavings on becoming a successful entrepreneur and capitalizing on China’s ecommerce boom.
And Yun Bao had bet right.
Ruthlessly, over the carcasses and discarded bodies of defeated competitors left and right, he’d risen to the top, slowly at first, and then eventually mercurially, and had groomed his only son, Jack, to take the reins once he left this mortal world.
But once Yun had died last year, Jack had somehow frittered it all away. He and his allies had bumbled and fumbled, the CCP somehow wrestling away control of the gigantic, multi-continent-spanning, megacorp now the family patriarch was gone. A legendary story come to an inglorious and ignominious end; Jack Bao had instead become a cautionary tale for all who dared cross the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, it suddenly dawned upon me, that must be another reason they kept him imprisoned here. Alive, he served an iconic reminder that no one, not even multibillionaires, was safe from the arm of the Chinese communist government. Its reach could always find you, strip you of everything, and detain you anywhere.
When I wake, I find myself in a soft, white feather bed, tucked in under sheets. I have no recollection of how I’d gotten here, but someone at least someone had apparently helped me kick off my shoes. The second thing I notice is a thunderous headache that slams into my being with the force of a thousand suns. There’s a throbbing in my temples that feels like a locomotive derailed and struck a nuclear power plant. All while somehow crashing into a jumbo airliner that screamed in from on high. Every fiber of my being feels dehydrated and I feel like a depleted husk.
Looking around gingerly, I notice that I’m in a small quaint room, nicely appointed with modern furniture. I see that the room has its own bathroom so I stumble over to take a shower and get cleaned up. Outside, the windows are bright and daylight seems to be streaming through the curtain blinds.
Half-an-hour later, I stumble out of my room and down the stairs. It’s all slowly coming back to me as I survey the damage of the night before in the living room floor. Kristen is still passed out on the soft, draped in a bear fur, of all things. Empty beer bottles litter the heated stone tile floor and I need to watch my step in order to not sprain an ankle on all of destruction.
We had one and truly laid waste to the place.
There’s a giant flat screen display on the wall opposite of the wall-length fireplace that Jack built into the wall. It’s weird to me that a place as hot as Xi’an could also get snow, but sure. On the display, I see that apparently at some point in the evening, we’d gone to town on karaoke. The scrolling marque from John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” is still scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
“Do you want breakfast?”
I look behind me and see Li. She’s wearing a grey oversized knit sweater and big, thick black-framed glasses. I guess perfect eyesight still wasn’t a thing you could buy with all the CRISPR tech. Also, despite the fact that it’s also quite cold, for some reason she’s wearing absurdly short shorts.
I start to say something but my head spasms with pain so I can only nod.
“Of course,” she says sympathetically. “Sit, sit. I’ll make something up.”
With great care, I sit on one of the orange leather barstools at the massive kitchen island that’s Antarctica-sized and she bustles about, cleaning up the countertop and sweeping away the mess from the night before. She pours me a tall glass of orange juice which I accept gratefully.
A fragment of my piecemeal brain suddenly recalls a memory: Li is definitely standing on the glass coffee table in the living room drinking Grey Goose straight from the bottle with one hand and a microphone in the other. I look at her, now at the stovetop scrambling eggs; the smell of onions, chives, and cheddar wafting in the air.
“Li,” I manage to croak, my voice hoarse. “How are you still alive?”
She laughs. “Ah, high tolerance and a quick recovery period is one of the benefits, you see.”
She lays out the plate of food before me.
“Eat, eat! Shu is currently out at the morning market. She’s getting supplies for our big outing later today.” Li smiles as me, “We’re all very happy that you’ve visited us. It can sometimes become… isolating here, away from it all.”
- “dickheads” (roughly translated)