Chapter Ten – Passage Three
Turning a bustling metropolis into a barren, disease-ridden wasteland isn’t exactly something that I can put on my CV so on the car trip over to Alan’s undisclosed, mysterious location, I’m mostly contemplating my future in silence. Or what might be left of it at this point. With COVID-59 having killed off 12% of the global population and climbing, it’s unclear to me if after this ordeal concludes, that there’ll be much of a world to return to.
I should mention, by the way, if it seems that we’re relatively nonchalant about a global pandemic that’s killing off tens of millions, it’s because we were vaccinated. We’d gotten our shots about nine months ago right at the very start before we’d gotten shipped down here to Shingatse (near Bhutan). Of course, I hadn’t known this then– they’d fed us some line at the time about the immunization being a standard, run-of-the-mill flu shot. It was only later that Alan had told us the entire story. And that’s when the pieces had really settled in– the enormity of what was in the process of happening.
The truck pulls up at an unremarkable, nondescript building in what must be downtown Shingatse and we climb out of the back. Alas, no more plush, black Lincoln town cars for this motely crew– we ride in the back of Libyan demolition trucks now. This is what the world has come to.
“What do you think he wants?” Kristen asks. It’s only midmorning but I can already smell the booze on her breath. While I probably should’ve seen it coming, of all of us, Kristen was the one who became raging drunk these past nine months while everything had unfolded. Coleman had taken up weights and Deepak and retreated deep into his studies. I’d thrown myself into work– we weren’t officially on assignment from the CCP any longer but we’d still had our laptops and they’d left our data access credentials intact. The night we’d departed Urumqi had been harried and frantic.
I’d been asleep in my room in bed when I’d heard the slight rustling of sheets and felt someone gently shake me awake. When I finally came to, in my groggy and hazy state, it was Shu beside my bed, fully dressed in a white winter parka and duffel in hand, ready to go.
“Shhhhh,” she’d said softly. “Get your things, Dexter, it’s time to go.”
By the time I’d properly dressed and gathered my few things, the others were already all waiting downstairs at the landing.
“What’s going on?” I’d asked Alan.
“Never mind,” he’d said. “It’s time to go. There’s a car awaiting you guys outside. Stay in Shingatse. Accommodations have been set up. Under no circumstances go to the airport or try to leave the country. They’ll get you.”
“Who’ll get us?”
My head was spinning. It was the middle of the night. What on earth was going on?
Alan sighed and looked at all of us. Coleman’s the only one who appears as confused as I am while Deepak looked still half-asleep. Only Kristen, I remember, had a hard look on her face. Outside, it was pitch black and rain had started coming down, hard. There was a black town car awaiting us in the oval and it slowly dawned in me: We were four foreigners at the far end of the world in the middle of the night.
“Guys,” Alan finally said, “there’s been a coup. Xi Wiping’s out. It’s unclear who’s at the top now but whoever it is, you guys are better off away from this whole mess. It’s time to go. We’ll be in touch. Remember, no matter what, no airports. Don’t try to leave the country. No matter what.”
With that, we’d all gotten into the car and had left. That was nine months ago.
And now we were getting into another car and going back. Going back to where it all began.
When Shu opens the door, I see inside they’re in a small apartment. It’s old but Shu has noticeably kept it clean and tidy. I see Alan in a faded white shirt wearing striped suspenders in the back working at a desk. For some reason, his left arm is in a makeshift sling.
“Dexter! Kristen! So good to see all of you!” Shu gives me a hug and I think, ah—she must’ve been vaccinated too.
Even here, in the middle of po-dunk China, away from all the glitz and glamour, Shu is looking magnificent. Her face is maybe a little tired and there’s some lines and crinkles around her eyes that I don’t remember before. And her hair may not have the same bright luster that I last remembered. But raging global pandemic considered, she looks great.
“Hold this,” Kristen says and she pushed a brown paper bag concealing a bottle into Shu’s chest. Brusquely pushing past Shu, Kristen stomps over to Alan, who’s still sitting at his desk. Alan looks up.
“Kristen! Good to–“
POW! Kristen socks Alan straight across the face. His glasses go flying off and he reels back in his chair, actually falling out of it onto the barren clay floor. I’ve never seen a megaton nuclear warhead detonate but this surely comes close, I’m fairly confident.
“You lying sack of shit!”
Kristen winds up and looks like she’s about to kick Alan in the ribs while he’s down but Coleman dashes over and restrains her, barely in the nick of time, knocking over stacks of books on the coffee table. Sheafs of paper go flying.
“Oh my God, you crazy woman!” Alan shouts from his fetal position on the ground, his arms covering his head as is expecting another attack. “I had nothing to do with it, nothing! I didn’t know!”
“Like hell you didn’t know!” yells Kristen; Coleman’s arms are still wrapped around her waist, holding her back. But even with all of that Bowflex muscle master training, I can see he’s straining to keep Kristen restrained. Hell hath no fury like a woman’s wrath.
“He didn’t know!” Shu says, running over and is kneeling at Alan’s side. “None of us did!”
“If I was part of this, do you I think I would’ve sent you all away?!” Alan exclaims, massaging his jaw in disbelief with his good hand. “We’ve been tapped here for the past year just like you guys!”
I look around and finally have a moment to absorb our dingy surroundings. It’s a small one-bedroom apartment and from appearances, it looks like Shu’s been living in the bedroom while Alan’s been camped out here in the common area. There’s a small kitchenette, a small desk that Alan had been working out, and two crummy looking sofas and a coffee table; all three look like they’d been extracted from a dumpster at some point in time.
It was not exactly a shining image of luxury. And Kristen seems to have finally taken a moment to absorb everything too– she looks like she’s finally calmed down a bit. Deepak spies a crystal decanter half-full of something amber in the corner. He saunters over to pour several glasses and hands us each a tumbler.
“Alright, alright, I think we need to start at the beginning.” He takes a seat on the fraying sofa and takes a long sip. “What do you guys know?”