I reached for my cell phone and dialed the number of Doctor Gu Wen Kuei, an old comrade from my army days who now worked at the Institute of Infectious Diseases at Chongqing University. 3 We exchanged pleasantries, discussing our health, our grandchildren; it was only proper. I then told him about the outbreak and listened as he made some joke about the hygiene habits of hillbillies. I tried to chuckle along but continued that I thought the incident might be significant. Almost reluctantly he asked me what the symptoms were. I told him everything: the bites, the fever, the boy, the arm…his face suddenly stiffened. His smile died.
He asked me to show him the infected. I went back into the meeting hall and waved the phone’s camera over each of the patients. He asked me to move the camera closer to some of the wounds themselves. I did so and when I brought the screen back to my face, I saw that his video image had been cut.
“Stay where you are,” he said, just a distant, removed voice now. “Take the names of all who have had contact with the infected. Restrain those already infected. If any have passed into coma, vacate the room and secure the exit. ” His voice was flat, robotic, as if he had rehearsed this speech or was reading from something. He asked me, “Are you armed?” “Why would I be?” I asked. He told me he would get back to me, all business again. He said he had to make a few calls and that I should expect “support” within several hours.
They were there in less than one, fifty men in large army Z-8A helicopters; all were wearing hazardous materials suits. They said they were from the Ministry of Health. I don’t know who they thought they were kidding. With their bullying swagger, their intimidating arrogance, even these backwater bumpkins could recognize the Guoanbu. 4
Their first priority was the meeting hall. The patients were carried out on stretchers, their limbs shackled, their mouths gagged. Next, they went for the boy. He came out in a body bag. His mother was wailing as she and the rest of the village were rounded up for “examinations. ” Their names were taken, their blood drawn. One by one they were stripped and photographed. The last one to be exposed was a withered old woman. She had a thin, crooked body, a face with a thousand lines and tiny feet that had to have been bound when she was a girl. She was shaking her bony fist at the “doctors. ” “This is your punishment!” she shouted. “This is revenge for Fengdu!”
She was referring to the City of Ghosts, whose temples and shrines were dedicated to the underworld. Like Old Dachang, it had been an unlucky obstacle to China’s next Great Leap Forward. It had been evacuated, then demolished, then almost entirely drowned. I’ve never been a superstitious person and I’ve never allowed myself to be hooked on the opiate of the people. I’m a doctor, a scientist. I believe only in what I can see and touch. I’ve never seen Fengdu as anything but a cheap, kitschy tourist trap. Of course this ancient crone’s words had no effect on me, but her tone, her anger…she had witnessed enough calamity in her years upon the earth: the warlords, the Japanese, the insane nightmare of the Cultural Revolution…she knew that another storm was coming, even if she didn’t have the education to understand it.
My colleague Dr. Kuei had understood all too well. He’d even risked his neck to warn me, to give me enough time to call and maybe alert a few others before the “Ministry of Health” arrived. It was something he had said…a phrase he hadn’t used in a very long time, not since those “minor” border clashes with the Soviet Union. That was back in 1969. We had been in an earthen bunker on our side of the Ussuri, less than a kilometer downriver from Chen Bao. The Russians were preparing to retake the island, their massive artillery hammering our forces.
Gu and I had been trying to remove shrapnel from the belly of this soldier not much younger than us. The boy’s lower intestines had been torn open, his blood and excrement were all over our gowns. Every seven seconds a round would land close by and we would have to bend over his body to shield the wound from falling earth, and every time we would be close enough to hear him whimper softly for his mother. There were other voices, too, rising from the pitch darkness just beyond the entrance to our bunker, desperate, angry voices that weren’t supposed to be on our side of the river. We had two infantrymen stationed at the bunker’s entrance. One of them shouted “Spetsnaz!” and started firing into the dark. We could hear other shots now as well, ours or theirs, we couldn’t tell.
Another round hit and we bent over the dying boy. Gu’s face was only a few centimeters from mine. There was sweat pouring down his forehead. Even in the dim light of one paraffin lantern, I could see that he was shaking and pale. He looked at the patient, then at the doorway, then at me, and suddenly he said, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. ” Now, this is a man who has never said a positive thing in his life. Gu was a worrier, a neurotic curmudgeon. If he had a headache, it was a brain tumor; if it looked like rain, this year’s harvest was ruined. This was his way of controlling the situation, his lifelong strategy for always coming out ahead. Now, when reality looked more dire than any of his fatalistic predictions, he had no choice but to turn tail and charge in the opposite direction. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. ” For the first time everything turned out as he predicted. The Russians never crossed the river and we even managed to save our patient.
For years afterward I would tease him about what it took to pry out a little ray of sunshine, and he would always respond that it would take a hell of a lot worse to get him to do it again. Now we were old men, and something worse was about to happen. It was right after he asked me if I was armed. “No,” I said, “why should I be?” There was a brief silence, I’m sure other ears were listening. “Don’t worry,” he said, “everything’s going to be all right. ” That was when I realized that this was not an isolated outbreak. I ended the call and quickly placed another to my daughter in Guangzhou.
Her husband worked for China Telecom and spent at least one week of every month abroad. I told her it would be a good idea to accompany him the next time he left and that she should take my granddaughter and stay for as long as they could. I didn’t have time to explain; my signal was jammed just as the first helicopter appeared. The last thing I managed to say to her was “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. ”
[Kwang Jingshu was arrested by the MSS and incarcerated without formal charges. By the time he escaped, the outbreak had spread beyond China’s borders. ]
[The world’s most populous city is still recovering from the results of last week’s general election. The Social Democrats have smashed the Llamist Party in a landslide victory and the streets are still roaring with revelers. I meet Nury Televaldi at a crowded sidewalk café. We have to shout over the euphoric din. ]
Before the outbreak started, overland smuggling was never popular. To arrange for the passports, the fake tour buses, the contacts and protection on the other side all took a lot of money. Back then, the only two lucrative routes were into Thailand or Myanmar. Where I used to live, in Kashi, the only option was into the ex-Soviet republics. No one wanted to go there, and that is why I wasn’t initially a shetou. 1 I was an importer: raw opium, uncut diamonds, girls, boys, whatever was valuable from those primitive excuses for countries. The outbreak changed all that. Suddenly we were besieged with offers, and not just from the liudong renkou, 2 but also, as you say, from people on the up-and-up. I had urban professionals, private farmers, even low-level government officials. These were people who had a lot to lose. They didn’t care where they were going, they just needed to get out.
Did you know what they were fleeing?
We’d heard the rumors. We’d even had an outbreak somewhere in Kashi. The government had hushed it up pretty quickly. But we guessed, we knew something was wrong.
Didn’t the government try to shut you down?
Officially they did. Penalties on smuggling were hardened; border checkpoints were strengthened. They even executed
a few shetou, publicly, just to make an example. If you didn’t know the true story, if you didn’t know it from my end, you’d think it was an efficient crackdown.
You’re saying it wasn’t?
I’m saying I made a lot of people rich: border guards, bureaucrats, police, even the mayor. These were still good times for China, where the best way to honor Chairman Mao’s memory was to see his face on as many hundred yuan notes as possible.
You were that successful.
Kashi was a boomtown. I think 90 percent, maybe more, of all westbound, overland traffic came through with even a little left over for air travel.
Just a little. I only dabbled in transporting renshe by air, a few cargo flights now and then to Kazakhstan or Russia. Small-time jobs. It wasn’t like the east, where Guangdong or Jiangsu were getting thousands of people out every week.
Air smuggling became big business in the eastern provinces. These were rich clients, the ones who could afford prebooked travel packages and first-class tourist visas. They would step off the plane at London or Rome, or even San Francisco, check into their hotels, go out for a day’s sightseeing, and simply vanish into thin air. That was big money. I’d always wanted to break into air transport.
But what about infection? Wasn’t there a risk of being discovered?
That was only later, after Flight 575. Initially there weren’t too many infected taking these flights. If they did, they were in the very early stages. Air transport shetou were very careful. If you showed any signs of advanced infection, they wouldn’t go near you. They were out to protect their business. The golden rule was, you couldn’t fool foreign immigration officials until you fooled your shetou first. You had to look and act completely healthy, and even then, it was always a race against time. Before Flight 575, I heard this one story about a couple, a very well-to-do businessman and his wife. He had been bitten. Not a serious one, you understand, but one of the “slow burns,” where all the major blood vessels are missed. I’m sure they thought there was a cure in the West, a lot of the infected did. Apparently, they reached their hotel room in Paris just as he began to collapse. His wife tried to call the doctor, but he forbade it. He was afraid they would be sent back. Instead, he ordered her to abandon him, to leave now before he lapsed into coma. I hear that she did, and after two days of groans and commotion, the hotel staff finally ignored the DO NOT DISTURB sign and broke into the room. I’m not sure if that is how the Paris outbreak started, though it would make sense.
You say they didn’t call for a doctor, that they were afraid they’d be sent back, but then why try to find a cure in the West?
You really don’t understand a refugee’s heart, do you? These people were desperate. They were trapped between their infections and being rounded up and “treated” by their own government. If you had a loved one, a family member, a child, who was infected, and you thought there was a shred of hope in some other country, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to get there? Wouldn’t you want to believe there was hope?
You said that man’s wife, along with the other renshe, vanished into thin air.
It has always been this way, even before the outbreaks. Some stay with family, some with friends. Many of the poorer ones had to work off their bao 3 to the local Chinese mafia. The majority of them simply melted into the host country’s underbelly.
The low-income areas?
If that’s what you want to call them. What better place to hide than among that part of society that no one else even wants to acknowledge. How else could so many outbreaks have started in so many First World ghettos?
It’s been said that many shetou propagated the myth of a miracle cure in other countries.
[Another pause. ]
How did Flight 575 change air smuggling?
Restrictions were tightened, but only in certain countries. Airline shetou were careful but they were also resourceful. They used to have this saying, “every rich man’s house has a servant’s entrance. ”
What does that mean?
If western Europe has increased its security, go through eastern Europe. If the U. S. won’t let you in, go through Mexico. I’m sure it helped make the rich white countries feel safer, even though they had infestations already bubbling within their borders. This is not my area of expertise, you remember, I was primarily land transport, and my target countries were in central Asia.
Were they easier to enter?
They practically begged us for the business. Those countries were in such economic shambles, their officials were so backward and corrupt, they actually helped us with the paperwork in exchange for a percentage of our fee. There were even shetou, or whatever they called them in their barbarian babble, who worked with us to get renshe across the old Soviet republics into countries like India or Russia, even Iran, although I never asked or wanted to know where any of the renshe were going. My job ended at the border. Just get their papers stamped, their vehicles tagged, pay the guards off, and take my cut.
Did you see many infected?
Not in the beginning. The blight worked too fast. It wasn’t like air travel. It might take weeks to reach Kashi, and even the slowest of burns, I’ve been told, couldn’t last longer than a few days. Infected clients usually reanimated somewhere on the road, where they would be recognized and collected by the local police. Later, as the infestations multiplied and the police became overwhelmed, I began to see a lot of infected on my route.
Were they dangerous?
Rarely. Their family usually had them bound and gagged. You’d see something moving in the back of a car, squirming softly under clothing or heavy blankets. You’d hear banging from a car’s boot, or, later, from crates with airholes in the backs of vans. Airholes…they really didn’t know what was happening to their loved ones.