The opening of a novella about this pandemic; just set somewhere else entirely.
In a world with alternative truths what we would perhaps prefer is an alternative world on which to trial them.
Part 1 – Beginnings
Moon is about to place an Uggo piece into what he hopes will be a Star Conflict alliance fighter when a man staggers into the alley. He is coughing violently and has tottered over to a wall, which he uses to prop himself up. Cough, cough, hack, bent over as if he is dying. Moon recalls his dead grandfather who worked in the mills but smoked too much, Mama said, though papa says it was the pollution killed him. Moon reminds himself of where he is and what he was watching. So he sees the man push himself up and come stumbling down the alley, silhouetted by the light of the street behind him. Though he is entering shadow now and Moon cannot see if he is even young or old. But still he’s coughing hard, and staggering.
The man wobbles further down the alley, growing unsteadier with each step and then, under the fire escape landing outside Moon and his parents’ flat where Moon is playing with his Uggo, coughing very violently, suddenly, again, he goes down among the bins and barrels.
Moon wonders if the man has been poisoned. It happens, he knows. Part of Moon, who is watching this unfold as if it’s his favourite tele show with Inspector Tooler, is wondering just what he will tell Hee at school when they go back from the New Moon Festival Holydays.
The man coughs again, a great rattling thing, as if he’s breathing his last. A barrel rolls out and no one else has heard; not a light or voice is raised. They are all watching the tele, Moon thinks. And the whole earth is quiet, suddenly. Moon shakes his head and recalls that he is not in some game or fantasy world and goes in to tell his parents about the man.
Nahuw Central Hospital
Doctor Tsu Wenliang sees them rush the gurney in. Through the window of the room where he is writing a report on another death and what he wants to call an outbreak, he sees Nao, the nurse in charge; he cocks his eyebrows; she nods yes. Another one, he thinks. Crosses out the number 30. Writes 31. He hopes he will not be crossing out the number 4 in the deaths column.
He picks up his phone and says ‘23.’ The connection made, Doctor Miang, the registrar, barks, ‘Yes, Tsu, what is it?’
‘Another one,’ says Tsu. ‘We need to call this in.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘No but he’s just come in and it will be. It’s the same pneumonia-like thing. But this isn’t right, not for pneumonia.’
‘No,’ says Miang. ‘No. Nothing to GHA. Not yet. Let me contact Gnikep.’
‘Why. They’ll stall. Party conference’s coming up.’
‘Tsu, you say foolish things. And I said no. Let’s wait on more results. We need data.’
‘We need to get this out.’
‘No. We wait. I’ll come down.’
‘How long?’ Tsu asks.
‘Until we know for certain. I want pathology data.’
‘If you say so. But they’re understaffed and I’m not sure they know how urgent this is. You told them.’
The phone clicks dead and Tsu hangs up. He knows Miang hasn’t put an urgent on it. It’s the weekend and a long one with the public holydays added. Doesn’t want to pay overtime.
Nao taps on the window. Yes, she mouths.
He smiles at the tablet on which he is electrostylusing his report. Puts the stylus down. ‘Convert,’ he says and he watches his Anglish notes (all doctors must speak Anglish, the language of medicine) assemble digitally. The crossed out 30 vanishes, becomes 31.
That’s just here, Tsu thinks. I wonder how Ho is going at South and Jiang at West too. He shakes his head; he’s already argued with Jiang, who always toes the party line. But will Ho send, he wonders. He said he would, if I did. I’ll call him.
Send? the screen flashes at him. He has the comp muted. To hell with it, he thinks.
‘Send,’ he says, and the report goes. He knows where it will end up, the very room. He’d had leave to go there five years back, his wife, Sun Nah, here teaching, surety of his good behaviour. She is dead now and he knew that he wishes he could go with his message to the room marked EAST AISA in Aveneg where his email will lodge and stir up some grave concerns, more than one of them political in nature.
‘This is new,’ he tells the tablet.
‘Dictation?’ it flashes.
Yes, he thinks. And though he prefers the slow unwinding of notation from his electrostylus maybe for this he needs the rush of words by mouth. He is tired of the Miangs and Jiangs of this world.
‘Dictation now,’ he says.
‘Supplementary Report, Nahuw Central Hospital.’
‘Mystery Pneumonia-like, possible SARS virus; Dr. Tsu Wenliang diagnostician.
I have grave concerns…’
An Li is sick, lungs filled with fluid and something heavier and she is sure she is drowning. A nurse is looking at her and An Li cannot quite tell what the look means. Her head is hammering at her sensibilities and she is very afraid, suddenly.
‘Am I dying,’ she asks? The nurse looks at her and doesn’t answer.
Maybe she didn’t hear me, An Li thinks. Her voice is just a whisper, even with more effort; she feels she almost has to shout. ‘Am I dying?’
‘Oh no,’ the nurse says, smiles. Maybe An Li does not look convinced because the nurse goes on. ‘No, no, but you are very sick. Like these others.’ The nurse ushers with her eyes for An Li to look. And An Li lifts her heavy head and sees the corridor full of gurneys and beds and the nurses and doctors rushing, or still and fiddling with some piece of equipment and most of them wearing masks and she thinks, I am dying. I am dying. Here.
… To be continued