|Friday – 12/18||Nine Months Later||Chapter 10.1|
|Friday – 12/18||Bowflex Muscle Master 3000||Chapter 10.2|
|Saturday – 12/19||POW!||Chapter 10.3|
|Sunday – 12/20||The American Approach||Chapter 10.4|
|Wednesday – 12/23||Deepak the Environmental Crusader||Chapter 10.5|
|Wednesday – 12/23||“We Are Not One World.”||Chapter 10.6|
Chapter Ten – Passage One
NINE MONTHS LATER
“Record number of hospitalizations continue for a second week as the novel coronavirus sweeps around the world.”
“With no end in sight, the global death count continues to mount day over day from this horrifying new virus.”
“World leaders are powerless…”
“Turn it off,” Kristen says from the bed. “I don’t need to hear any more. I really don’t.”
I click the remote but nothing happens. I click it again but still no avail.
“Sorry, I think the remote’s dead.” I’m lying on the sofa opposite the small television in the room. It’s where I’ve been the past two days.
“Get up and turn it off.”
“I would if I could. But I can’t.”
“Oh my God, you are the laziest sad sack of human being ever.” Kristen gropes around the bedside and find her left heel which she hurls at the display. She misses by a solid meter to the right.
The front door knob starts turning and my body involuntarily tenses. A moment later, Deepak and Coleman just push in from the outside though and I relax again. Deepak shoves aside the empty beer cans on the round table in the room to clear space and Coleman’s carrying a carboard box what smells, miraculously, like pizza.
“Breakfast is here!” Coleman says, rubbing his hands together. “Oh my God, it’s cold out there.”
By “out there,” Coleman of course is referring to the Tibetan Himalayas. That’s right, we’re still in China. At this rate, we might never leave. But instead of the Four Seasons in downtown Shanghai, the powers that be have saw fit to hole us away in a secluded monastery nestled in a small hamlet a few meters from China’s border with Bhutan. There’s a stone tower with a gong in it that sounds every hour and the walls of the monastery are built with query stone that I suspect likely predate all of China.
“How on earth did you guys find pizza?” Kristen asks, as she leans over to grab a slice, still underneath the warm covers.
“State secret,” Coleman says and he takes another bite.
“Uh huh, right.”
Still, no one’s complaining. It’s been a long nine months. To me, it seems like just last week we were in Governor Wu’s office in Urumqi explaining our plan. Little did we know how literally it would be taken. For weeks after the meeting, we’d been housed under Chinese state security in Urumqi. It hadn’t been so bad. We’d continued to work on our models and crunch the numbers. When escorted by Alan or Shu and a few plainclothes guardsmen, we’d even been allowed to wander around Urumqi for a bit. We’d visited and worshipped at the mosque which required that we all dressed in shapeless clothing that covered all skin. Kristen had also needed to wear a hijab that covered her face, neck, and all hair. All in all, for those first few weeks at least, it had felt somewhat like an extended vacation.
And then just six short weeks later, we started hearing reports of a viral illness which had supposedly originated at the local Tuesday morning fish market. And from there, everything, in rapid order, spiraled as all hell broke loose.
I don’t often think about the past because I don’t consider it a useful exercise. Generally, I don’t feel like we make mistakes. Because if we’re doing the best we can with what we have at any given point in time, can you really call it a mistake? Is not having enough information a crime?
But looking back at the path we’ve traveled so far, I think it’s fair game to say that we probably could have done things differently. It is conceivable, or at least within the realm of possibility, that we possible hadn’t acted with the utmost wisdom in the matter.
What the Xi government ended up doing really makes perfect sense if you think about it. The most daunting roadblock to usurping any region of people is religion. For Islam, praying five times a day in a mosque towards the qibla (formerly the direction of Jerusalem; now the direction of Mecca, after 624 CE), is a paramount, core part of their faith. In this way, COVID-59 was genuinely a bonafide, devout Muslim-killing virus. It selectively targeted, by the very way it was explicitly designed and engineered in Chinese labs, the people who were most faithful and dogmatic about their religion. To be clear, many Muslims adjusted and followed the advice and direction of the CCP after the virus started spreading: To not gather in large public places (like mosques) and continued to pray at home, safely and isolated.
But many more gathered en masse at Salar, Shanxi, Tata Er, and Han Teng Gi Li– the four major and largest mosques in Urumqi. Obviously, one can only venture as to guess as to their reasons and motivations for ignoring the quarantine orders, even in the face of such deadly pandemic, but they congregated and prayed five times a day, every single day. Did they believe that their faith would save them? Did they disbelieve the Chinese authorities? Only they could tell you.
But they’re all dead now. So we’ll never know. The most devout were the first to die– horrifically and en masse.
COVID-59 was frightening in its contagiousness. Most viruses carry an infection rate of 1.5-2x. Meaning for every person who caught it, it was likely any close contact between infected carriers with healthy people would likely spread every 1.5-2 people you met. But COVID-59 possessed an unfathomable 7x infection rate, putting it even more lethal that the Bubonic Plague which in the 14th century killed off over fifty million Europeans, roughly 25% to 60% of the continent at the time.
The other characteristic of COVID-59 was that it possessed a ridiculously lengthy 14-day incubation period. Unlike the Ebola virus which often killed its host in 2-3 days, COVID-59 would actually lie in wait and fester for two weeks before any symptoms began to show in its carrier host. This meant people who thought they were perfectly healthy unknowingly, if they violated state quarantine orders, were super-spreaders. Those who visited mosques not only to pray, but also to birthday parties, family dinners, and holiday events. They’re the ones who carried the virus wide and far to all they contacted and touched.
Chapter Ten – Passage Two
Simply put, COVID-59 had been a great filter –a biological one– that the CCP unleashed on the unsuspecting Uyghur population. Those who listened to Beijing were most likely to make it through the ordeal. Obedience was tested in a way like never before, with very real-world and lethal consequences for non-adherents. Additionally, even long after the vaccine was “discovered”– the effects of the virus in the aftermath was profound– its effects lingered. People were afraid to congregate in large groups. An air of suspicion descended upon the land and hung over every physical human interaction like a dark cloud. Anyone could be a lethal carrier. You could never be too careful since every interaction was now suddenly a mechanism of possible contagion. Sure, maybe you wanted to catch the latest movie at theaters with friends. But was it worth possibly dying to go? More than any other measure in human history, COVID-59 attacked the core of civilized society– community. It isolated and divided us. And in our isolation, our worst imagined fears controlled us because we could no longer interact with others. So we listened to the state because it became not just the mainline, but the only line of information that we had.
COVID-59 was a state-created instrument of fear– it drove and kept people apart. And it made them obedient. Since its founding, the CCCP had always disallowed the freedom of assembly. (When you gathered in groups, you got Tiananmen Square.) But realistically, you couldn’t just deploy a phalanx of tanks to steamroll your citizens every time a protest sprung up. Though the CCP would’ve loved to do that and possessed no moral or ethical qualms about such a suppression technique, the logistics were just impossible. How were you supposed to deploy a tank squadron into the Himalayan mountains of Tibet with half-a-day’s notice if the Dalai lama started getting spicy and having ideas? And if you did somehow to miraculously fly a C-130 over to para-drop protestor-squashing tank battalions in some remote range of Nepal, chances were that the flash mobs would’ve long disbanded and dissipated back into the ether long before you got there.
China was a big country. And it was difficult to stomp our suppression in all its corners and pockets.
But a virus. A biological agent that could literally be everywhere, all at once. This was ingenious— precisely the big brother and (lethal) consequence-dispensing mechanism that the Chinese Communist Party had always dreamed about. COVID-59 answered all the CCP’s prayers in one fell swoop– it was the complete package.
Let’s not mince words here: This was biological genocide on a sweeping scale– one unlike any the world had ever seen.
Oh, the world.
The world was an unfortunate casualty, several tens-of-millions dead, an unpleasant side-effect of the CCP’s grand scheme. Of course, at one point, COVID-59 had escaped China. How could it not? It wasn’t like the CCP exactly took measures to prevent its worldwide spread. In fact, for weeks after the initial outbreak, the Chinese had publicly in truly reality-distortion-bubble fashion, steadfastly maintained that there was no virus. Even as hundreds, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands of Uyghurs began growing deathly ill and perished. For those critical first few weeks, international flights continued flying. Conferences, concerts, and mass sporting events were all continued to be held. And for fourteen-days, it was total open season for COVID-59 as it spread itself silently to all over the world as the CCP gave it plausibility and cover and deniability to spread.
As for me? I’m okay. Sure, I have my low moments. And the knowledge that a plan I helped devise has somehow come to life and killed tens of millions does weigh on me. But honestly, the human mind is incapable of processing horror of such scale. Our evolution is strong and we possess plenty of defensive mechanisms to rationalize and console. Sure, we’d developed a plan. But it was a fictional plan. Yes, we’d crunched all the numbers to present a realistic cover story– how many hospitalizations, how many deaths, the rate of spread, etc. All of the metrics to make the story believable. But again, it had been a fictional exercise. I was more like a screenwriter or a fan-fiction creator, just fantasizing imaginary scenarios. Just because I wrote a gender-bent Harry didn’t mean I actually wanted one.
Also, from that fateful meeting with Governor Wu, it’d taken a short six weeks before, we now know, patient zero had started the spread in the Urumqi fish market. Three weeks! So, certainly– somewhere in some frozen biohazard storage locker somewhere in the bowels of some deep-underground Chinese dungeon, the CCP had clearly already been working on COVID-59. Maybe already for years even. So the building blocks had all been there. It’s not like they’d created the virus because of us.
Besides, the official line from Beijing was that this was freak of nature incident. An unholy unfortunate consequence of contamination at the fish market by bat feces or someone eating a rodent or something. I can’t remember now, but there’d been some sort of story that was of course entirely speculated, completely unverifiable, and yet simply presumed the truth by everyone somehow.
Surely, you couldn’t put this crisis at our feet, right?
That day that Coleman and Deepak had somehow commandeered pizza was the day that we’d gotten the call though. It’d been simple and had arrived by secure message on our smartphones.
RETURN. CAR WILL BE BY AT 2P. -ASV
Alan, Shu, and Van. We were being summoned back, somewhere.
“Hmm,” Kristen says, looking at her phone, still eating her pizza slice. “Do we go back?” A crease has formed between here eyebrows.
“Do we have a choice?” asks Deepak.
“Just when I was starting to get used to this place,” Coleman says while lifting a dumbbell with one hand. He taken up weight training for the nine-month duration that we’d been holed up and his once scrawny frame and had grown impressively lean and muscular. The kid was 23, good lord. Did I possess such drive back when I was his age? Of course, the monastery hadn’t had a weight room so Coleman had eminent domain’ed one of the empty rooms in on the ground floor that’d formerly, in some previous life somewhere, been a meditation space; and had had mats, dumbbells, medicine balls, rope, and a Bowflex Muscle Master 3000 flown in by drone. This was in the early days before everything had exploded into a full-scale global pandemic. Back when if you had enough money, you could still get the drones to deliver whatever you wanted or needed to anywhere you were willing to pay for. Even a far-flung monastery in the hinterlands of the Tibetan outskirts.
Coleman’s biceps were now the size of my head. Like I’d said, we’d had a lot of downtime.
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?”
Chapter Ten – Passage Four
Undoing centuries of culture and community was not a challenge for the faint of heart. And it took every tool in the toolbox for the CCP to achieve its aim. But like everything the CCP did, there was neither subtlety nor patience in the endeavor. Change was a blunt instrument brought to bear, all at once, in a single stroke.
When you are occupying a foreign land, there are generally two approaches. And it’s entirely a numbers game. The first approach is if you’re the minority population numbers-wise.
“For example,” Deepak had once explained to us. “The British in India. No matter what the British did, they would never outnumber the number of Indians on the subcontinent which was at the time 500 million and counting. While there were only a few thousand British. Thus, the English were destined to forever only be a minority in the country.”
This is why the grand British experiment had ultimately failed in India. (At least, according to Deepak.) And had also failed in the Americas. And in North Africa, the Caribbean, and China (then, Manchuria). They simply never had the numbers on their side. So they tried to win hearts and minds instead. Hence, to this day, the English that is spoken in India still carries a heavy British influence and intonation. “Trousers” instead of “pants”; “rubbish bin” instead of “trash can.” Etc, etc.
When you are the numerical minority, you need to try to win mindshare and you need to convince and persuade. This is the first approach of colonialism and foreign occupation.
“This,” Alan explains patiently, “is obviously not what China did.”
He’s sitting upright in the armchair holding a bag of frozen peas to his cheek, which is now rapidly swelling. Alan grimaces as Shu rubs some ointment on his face– a nasty cut has opened right beneath his right eye.
And then, Alan goes on to explain, the second approach.
Pioneered by the thirteen colonies in the new world, the second approach is when you possess –or will possess– overwhelming numerical superiority. In this case, you can swoop in, bulldoze the native lands, and steamroll all of the aborigines to get your way.
“There’s no need to win hearts and minds if you simply assimilate all of the willing and annihilate anyone who resists,” as Deepak had once told us. “The Christopher Columbus and John Smith model of occupation. People forget this sometimes, but before the British colonists, back in 1619, North America actually already had people on it.”
So what happened to the existing indigenous population?
“Oh, it’s simple,” Deepak explained, shrugging. “You simply shunt them off into reservations– a tiny fraction of their previous homeland while you– the American majority– subsume everything else. Then in several generations, they’ll either all have been assimilated –via money, wealth, fame, promises of a better life, etc– or have died off.”
We call this approach The American Model: Success and achievement via brute, unrelenting, numerical force.
“The Chinese are a proud people but they’re not above picking and borrowing from the best ideas,” Alan says. “As Deepak had wrote up in his report– in 1619 with Jamestown, the US pioneered a new model of occupation that was a wild and smashing success. So being the keen students of history that they are, the CCP simply used that exact same playbook in Xinjiang.”
Alan taps a few keys on his laptop and I see several charts flash onto the screen. It’s an illustrated comparison of the Uyghur birthrate in Xinjiang compared to the Chinese birthrate. Suffice it to say, the Chinese population is significantly outstripping the Uyghur birthrate by at least threefold.
In my head, another piece suddenly falls into place.
Even before we had joined the project, I remember now that the previous team who had worked in Xinjiang ahead of us had focused their energies on encouraging feminism, equal rights, and a higher standard of living in Xinjiang. They’d hoped to tap into some of the repression of the Muslim community but at the time, I hadn’t understood the reasoning. But now I understood– it was clear as day.
All of the data unequivocally shows, as clear as day, that with industrialization and rising gender equality, birthrates will always sharply plummet. Research has long demonstrated that every society which possessed more educated women also likewise results in declining family sizes and birthrates. As women flourished and were able to pursue their dreams, many chose careers and started families later or not at all.
Masquerading as champions of gender equality and progressivism, China had poured resources into Xinjiang that had encouraged women to become increasingly independent. To begin with, it’s only been the small things– like being able to drive their own cars or not have to wear hajibs. But freedom begets more freedom. And while the Uyghur women were probably never going to be using Kindlr or whatever app of the day for loose, casual hookups, the CCP had done everything in its power to empower women in the region.
It took several decades, but the Chinese plan had slowly over a generation gained traction. The Uyghur women got a taste of freedom and liked it. Within sixty years, liberalization had begun sweeping the land– more women working and fewer tending to families. And families were increasingly smaller and wealthier– better adapted to fit the “knowledge economy” that was increasingly the only way to make a living anymore as living standards had slowly ticked ever upwards over the decades.
The second leg of the plan, then, was to somehow “deal” with the conservative, religious right– bastions of Uyghur culture and identity. Under no circumstance would women from those households ever be working or empowered, despite the CCP’s best efforts. The deeply religious stuck dogmatically to their doctrine, praying at the mosques five times a day, holding steadfast to their beliefs.
And so Beijing developed COVID-59– the ace in their back pocket. A biological agent to break the religious right by using their most cherished strength against them: Their belief.
“Logical people are the least dangerous and the most easily tricked,” Deepak had concluded. “Rational people who listen to science and follow the data are the most easily convinced. You simply show them ‘data’ and ‘new facts’ and you’ve changed their ‘enlightened minds’. It’s the people who believe against all reality who are the most dangerous. Convincing or destroying this set of people in Xinjiang will be what the effort hinges upon– the difference between overwhelming success and outright failure.”
Chapter Ten – Passage Five
“Very well,” Coleman says, “all that is well and good. But out with it.” He looks straight at Alan.
“Why are we here? Why’d you ask for us back?”
Alan shifts around uncomfortably in his seat, it feels to me like he’s wrestling with how to express himself properly in convincing fashion. Our encounter so far hasn’t exactly been inspiring utmost confidence.
“I’ve been looking at the data,” Alan finally says. “And I think we have a chance to change things.”
“To change what, exactly?” Deepak asks, his voice skeptical. “And why?”
“Don’t you care?” asks Shu. “Don’t you want to see the people behind the greatest genocide in human history held accountable?”
“Accountable for what? They had a vaccine ready,” says Deepak. “They vaccinated who they wanted to save –people like us– and let the rest die in a Russian Roulette-style extermination. Besides, being vaccinated isn’t some slam dunk either– it’s just helps. There was randomness and an element of chance. Anyone of us could’ve still all died, you know. You’ve seen the movie. Balance in all things.“
“Oh my God, I can’t believe you,” Shu exclaims. “How about the rest of the world? Europe, Africa, the Americas? The virus has killed tens of millions!”
“You’re going to blame the rest of the world for not being ready?”
“China had a cure that it didn’t share!”
“Since when is it China’s responsibility to care about the world?”
“It needs to care when it causes the problem!”
Now it’s Deepak’s turn to look incredulous. He stands up. He’s had a few drinks at this point and I suddenly remember that for the nine months we were holed away in that monastery in the land of the Dali Lama and Tibetan enlightenment that he’d been pouring over research and studies that entire time.
“You know what’s a problem?” Deepak exclaims, swinging his drink around wildly and some rum spills out. “Overpopulation! Environmental degradation! Climate change! Polar ice caps melting!
“In the past nine months, after they shut down all vehicular traffic in Beijing, after just month again, the Chinese saw something they haven’t seen in over a century– a clear blue sky. This winter, for the first time ever, polar bears aren’t going to have their home incinerated–“
“People are dying by the tens of millions and you care about polar bears?“
“It’s not just about polar bears and penguins! If the polar ice caps completely flood, sea levels will rise! All coastal areas will flood! New York, San Francisco, and the entirety of Japan? Gone.“
I’m watching this exchange degenerate in real-time. Shu was tending to Alan but now she’s forgotten all about him and is fuming. In fact, she’s grown so angry that I’m afraid she’s going to punch Deepak instead.
“Alright, guys, hold on. Before someone get another blackeye.” I turn to Alan. “Finish what you were saying.” I glare at both Deepak and Shu. “We’ll leave aside the moment the question of blame. Just tell us.”
Shu and Deepak glare at each but manage to stay silent and Alan takes that as his cue.
“Right,” Alan sighs, “so here’s what I found out. Generally, epidemiology is tough. In the early days, you’ve got people coming in from all over reporting all kinds of symptoms. Much of it is just your run-of-the-mill common cold or flu. Headaches, nausea, etc. The truth is much of the time, we don’t even know we have a pandemic on our hands until it’s arrived.”
Alan taps several keys and a holo-projection pops up. It’s a time-lapse of the past nine months and how COVID-59 had spread. At first brush, it’s exactly what you would expect. There was a red bubble around Urumqi which had slowly metastasized.
“But, what’s interesting about COVID-59 is that it possesses one unique trait far more rarely observed– early infected patients– no matter what background; age, gender, race, or geographic background– always reported one consistent symptom– the sudden disappearance of one’s sense of smell– anosmia.“
“We already tried looking at this,” Kristen says, shaking her head. “Trying to identify the etiology of the disease by narrowing by symptoms. It didn’t yield any additional insight.”
“Ah, but did you run it with internal Chinese state hospitalization data?” Alan says. “Our other set of books?”
He taps another few keys and a new map pops up on the holo-projection over the coffee table. This one is different. Interestingly, it shows that the virus did not originate in Urumqi. But rather, there was another place before that which had red dots.
Kristen stares at the holo-map, dazed. “This… this is extraordinary.”
“Yes, but isolating the cases of anosmia in the country around the start of COVID-59, you see that there were already several growing hotspots in China, namely Guangzhou.”
Guangzhou is the gateway between Hong Kong and China– second to Xinjiang, it was previously the most contested and riotous autonomous region in China.
“This is crazy,” Deepak says, throwing up his hands in a huff. “I’m not gallivanting off to some other far-off corner of China to pursue something that I honestly don’t believe is a problem. Honestly, the whole lot of you are delusional! If anything, you should be thanking the CCP! They’ve averted global famine, or at least postponed the End of Days for several decades!”
With that Deepak storms out of Alan’s apartment, slamming the door behind him.
I’ve been around the block enough times to have seen this act before. Someone always needs to be talked off the ledge at some point.
Kristen starts to rise off the sofa to go after Deepak but I wave her off and get up instead.
“I’ve got this, I’ll go talk to him,” I say.
“You know he’s not entirely wrong,” she says quietly. “He’s just saying what we’re all thinking.”
Chapter Ten – Passage Six
When I find Deepak, he’s smoking a cigarette and is gazing out over the balcony railing with that familiar thousand-yard stare. Alan and Shu’s apartment overlooks one of the quieter side streets in Shingatse and it’s midafternoon. There’s just a lone dried-pork-on-a-stick vendor who’s pedaling his greasy food on the street corner next to the locked bicycle racks. Alan and Shu live next to a giant karaoke place that looks like it once used to be the life of the town on Friday nights. But all that’s over now, remnants of a long-ago, fading world.
I light up a cigarette of my own and set my elbows on the rusted railing, leaning up against it. Together, Deepak and I puff away for a moment in mutual silence. It’s a golden, unwritten ritual among smokers everywhere. Sometimes, smokers just need to smoke. Helps clear the mind.
“You know what your problems all are?” he finally says, after taking a long drag, still looking out over the street. “No one wants to pull the lever. Everyone wants the trolley to go that way, but no one wants to actually be the one to do it.”
A single man, divorced with no wife or kids. I know the broad strokes of Deepak’s story. He’s a man with no family so he took on a new mission. Someway to leave a legacy, to make a dent on the world that’s quickly leaving him behind with each passing day.
“We are dying a slow death by a thousand cuts every month, every year. And the global community’s completely paralyzed, crippled by too many voices, to decide on a single course of action,” Deepak is saying, all while gesticulating pointedly.
It’s all a spiel I’ve heard before but I patiently listen and nod my head at all the right times. Deepak’s receding hairline on his balding dome glints in the afternoon sun.
“…and now we have a chance! We could be that change, Dexter! Us!“
I nod. Of course we could.
“I just don’t understand why everyone wants to hold China responsible,” and the frustration’s clear in his voice, “they’ve found a way to control the population in order to address a greater disaster that’s an existential threat to all of humanity.” He shakes his head. “China’s the only country that’s doing what needs to be done.“
Deepak Chopra grew up in the slums of New Delhi as a child and had spent his childhood nights in the street under starless, smog-infested skies. The fact that he was able to climb from such humble beginnings to the heights that he occupied now, he used as a forever-wedge, ammunition that he deployed frequently and widely in any argument. If he could do it, then anyone could do it. People made their own luck. And that those who lived in abject poverty deserved it and were just too lazy to help themselves. So they were always looking for handouts.
It’s a worldview I know very well. Because, I guess, once upon a time it was my own. But while it’s true we make our own luck, that’s only half the story. Fortune may favor the bold but that doesn’t mean you just launch everyone else into the sun. At least, I’m not there yet.
Deepak finally tires himself out and that’s my cue.
“Man, I agree with everything you’re saying and I hear you loud and clear,” I start, “and I totally agree. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. We are not a global community and we are not one world. You don’t pay taxes to the government of the world. You pay taxes to the government of America. To India. To China.”
“Absolutely,” Deepak says, nodding vigorously. “Damn right.”
“And I agree someone needs to do what it takes,” I say gently, “but do you really want it to be China? You want them at the top when it’s all over and all the dust has settled?”
“You know as well as I do that one country’s benefit is another country’s loss. China’s going to come out of this as the new global superpower with the fortunes of the western world rapidly waning. Is that a future you wish to live in? This new world order?”
“Of course not,” Deepak says disgustedly and he lights up another cigarette. “But do we really have a choice, Dex? They may be red but they’re the only people actually doing anything.”
“And why is immediate action so important?” I counter. “I agree with you about climate change. But why the urgency? I see temperatures slowly rising and sea levels creeping up. But no one’s dying yet.”
“Hundreds of thousands are dying in Africa and the other most impoverished regions in the world every year!” Deepak replies hotly. “Millions probably, because you can’t trust the numbers.”
“And so what?” I rebut. “Are they contributing to global GDP? Producing the great scientists and artists of tomorrow? The great minds that are shaping humanity’s next generation?”
“They’ll be lucky if they even live to the next generation! You think millions of poor people who live in poor countries and have no means of escape should suffer the consequences of rich industrialized nations?”
The opening I’ve been waiting for.
“You, yourself, immigrated from India, did you not? As a child? Poor people from poor countries will find a way to get out, if they really desire it. People make their own luck.”
To this, Deepak is silent and I swoop in for the haymaker.
“Besides, if we kick the can down the road long enough, you know people and humanity always do their best when we have our backs up against the wall. As a species, we’ve never failed. Malthus prophesized imminent doom from overpopulation and famine. But when we were really up against it, we cranked out Norman Borlaug. In the 70s, America did nothing and gave the Soviets a huge head start but we got Neil to the moon first, didn’t we? And reaching even father back, while Europe burned and Hitler and the Nazis marched across the continent, America twiddled its thumbs. But when we finally entered the war, you know what happened? Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We ended it.
“America, and humanity– we’re the comeback kids. In the history of our species, we’ve never faced any threat we didn’t beat, no matter how long we ignored it for. We play best from behind. In fact, it’s the only way we play.”
Deepak’s silent a long time. But I know I’ve got him cornered. Checkmate is always checkmate.
“So what are you proposing?” he finally asks.
“We’ve been asleep at the wheel long enough,” I say. Finishing my cigarette, I flick its stub out into the street and stand up from the railing.
“It’s time to get back in the saddle.”