The miniature cars and buses eighty-nine floors below busied about like mindless ants. Like blood vessels coursing through the complex maze of the human body, he though, unaware of the terrible foreshadowing that this sudden, alien thought was bearing. Underneath a pale veil of particles and humidity, and hemmed in by majestic bluish mountains, Taipei was an odd mix of old and new, East and West, neither beautiful nor ugly. The fresco, seen through 360-degree windows, was at once familiar and exotic, he though, as he gently put his hand on the small shoulder of his seven-year-old daughter, who was deeply absorbed scrutinizing some distant object through a long-range telescope.
“Take a look, dad!” Emily, her long blond hair swinging wildly, told him, deep excitement in her voice. Mandy, his wife, had disappeared in the gift shop about half an hour ago, and something told him he should go looking for her. They also had a dinner appointment across town, so they couldn’t dwell much longer. A quick look, and then they’d dive into the rowdy crowd of tourists and try to find her.
He pressed his eye against the lens and looked into the blurry distance. At first, he didn’t know what it was his daughter wanted him to look at. Then, as his eye familiarized itself with the scene, he saw a long plume of dark smoke emanating from a thicket of buildings. A very large fire, he thought, given its size, even from a height of about half a kilometer. People round him also appeared to have caught sight of the fire, as all of a sudden he heard muted screams and gasps. His daughter’s little hand locked into his and squeezed.
Then the smell, a nauseating mixture of unwashed bodies and dead animals, hit him. At the same time, his daughter’s hand squeezed with surprising strength, sending jolts of pain through his fingers. And she screamed, a horrible, blood-curdling wail he’d never heard from her before. Waves of icy water radiating from his heart, he looked away from the telescope. Just before he could swing around to look at his daughter, only to feel the cold clawed hands grip his neck and a set of rotten teeth plunge deeply into the skin, he saw its reflection in the window in front of him. Semi-transparent, in front of the proud mountains, pale high-rise buildings and the growing fire in the distance, it stood, a repugnant mass of gray flesh with oozing wounds and black liquid pouring between its purplish lips. And incongruously, a little red badge on his lapel identifying him as a member of a Chinese tourist group. The little hand squeezed, squeezed, but everything faded to black as the abomination pushed him to the ground and started tearing the flesh from his neck, severing the jugular. The screams became gradually more distant, and then, as the little hand let go, silence.
As she tried to save her father, Emily locked her little arms around the assailant’s neck, only to hear a snap and fall back. In her bloodstained hands she held the visitor’s badge. Instinct for survival kicking in, she ran away into the mad crowd.
Mandy, who’d spent far too much money on a jade necklace, would never have a chance to wear it. Little did the visitors on the eighty-ninth floor realize that 91 floors below, a scene of unprecedented horror was developing, with people one moment enjoying their meals in the sprawling cafeteria, and the next being pulled from their chairs and dragged away by a silent army of half-devoured, limping corpses. It was a frenzy of bloodletting as torn limbs and the blood of hundreds of victims mixed with the stir-fried noodles, dumplings and oyster pancakes.
By the time his heart stopped, the carnage down below had been long over. Slowly, the army of the dead made its way into the shopping mall, turning glitzy stores into mad circuses, and minutes after the act of death, giving rise to a platoon of undead minions wearing the gaudy attire, jewelry and watches of the ultra rich. It took the walking dead several minutes before they figured out how to use the elevators that would take them up the tall building. But up they went, floor by floor, like termites eating dead wood. A lucky few made it out alive. Most didn’t, either becoming prey to the snowballing army, or choosing sudden death — and hopefully escape from after-death horror — by breaking windows and jumping out, or going to the outdoor observatory and skydiving, giving horrified onlookers below a taste of similar acts of despair in a city far, far away by a sunny September day.
* * *
Later that day, when the nation learned of the horror at Taipei 101, the government sprang into action by doing what it does best: It held a press conference. Under attack from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which accused the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party government of incompetence, the Presidential Office told reporters that the situation was under control. Various agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health, were investigating. Police had cordoned of the area and investigators were noting down the demented reports from the few survivors who’d managed to escape the tower of death.
News also leaked that a blond-haired child was among those who had escaped, and that she had helped identify one of the ghoulish attackers by handing over to police a visitor’s badge. Li Qinjian, a Chinese tourist from Shanghai, may have been, according to the analysis of the CDC scientists, what is known in the field of epidemiology as the index case — the first bearer of a contagious disease, who passes it on to a new host, sparking an exponential spread. Naturally, they assumed they were dealing with a new form of communicable rage.
The man’s identity was then shared with the National Immigration Agency, which determined that Li had entered Taiwan the previous day as part of a tour group. His name was matched with the agency’s footage at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, and what this little exercise revealed was nothing to be proud of. Close-circuit camera footage at the gate showed an immigration officer barely glancing at Mr. Li, already looking like death warmed over, with a huge gash exposed on the left side of his neck, before stamping his travel documents and letting him through (a few months earlier, the agency had been embarrassed by a similar case, this one involving a wanted man using the passport of a friend who bore no resemblance to him to leave the country). Meanwhile, the body temperature detectors, installed at the arrival gate following the SARS outbreak in 2003, were of little use, as the monitors are on the lookout for high temperatures, signs of fever. Li was dead cold as he walked through the gate and therefore walk through the sensors as if he didn't exist. No blobs of purple, blue, green and yellow for him.
After Li’s identity was made public, DPP legislators, never missing an occasion to attack the government, accused the President of conspiring with the Chinese communists in the incident, perhaps with the objective of forcing an intervention by the People’s Liberation Army. The Presidential Office was adamant that no such plan was afoot, whereupon the legislature launched the tortuous process of bill proposals and counterproposals to deal with the emergency.
Deep inside the Presidential Office, the President was alone in his office, the telephone cradled between his head and his shoulder. He was sitting on the floor behind his ornate desk. The lights were dimmed, as if he didn’t want the rest of the world that he was there.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said. “Please, Pu-tsung, could you please take the next plane from Washington and come over to help out? I need you.”
No way, the voice said.
* * *
Thus began the terrifying struggle of the island’s 23 million people against the greatest challenge the nation has ever faced. In the weeks ahead, we will meet a large number of Taiwanese, some real, most fictional, first as they try to comprehend the nature of the catastrophe that has descended upon them, and then, after the initial shock has passed, as they battle the walking dead for their survival. Though satirical, this account uses a background that is anything but fictional, drawing from Taiwan’s idiosyncratic position within the international community, its diplomatic isolation, the perpetual threat from China, deeply divided domestic politics, greed, government incompetence, and the tyranny of its geography as a small island-nation. This is a work of fiction, but beyond that, it is also an attempt to tell the island’s complex story in a different, and perhaps more entertaining, way.
More to come… The walking dead are hungry, and the living are not giving up.