Friday, February 22, 2013

Day #3: Taipei

Day #2 wasn’t good at all.

Like brush fire, the plague spread from the epicenter, using public transportation to infect every corner of the city. What became clear, and what made matters worse in terms of prevention, was the fact that the fresh undead did not immediately lose all their cognitive functions and memory. For a little while, their behavior continued to reflect the victims’ old personalities. So in the hours after making the journey from life into death and into life again, the undead, though driven by hunger for warm flesh and blood, remained a shadow of their previous selves. Only after the brain had completely dissolved (which, with some notable exceptions, usually took between three and four hours) did the creatures completely shed their humanity and turn into raving meat-hungry lunatics.

Consequently, in the early hours of the epidemic, the crisis looked more like a mad circus than what it truly was, a carnage. Mangled bus drivers kept their runs for a while, florists sold bloodstained flowers, prostitutes bared their bluish breasts, and workers remained, if somewhat erratically, cogs in the giant moneymaking machine.

A former legislator, known by all as the king of lawsuits, was attacked by a group of gray undead as he headed for a TV studio to take part in an evening talk show. His first assailant went straight for the top of the short man’s head, its copper teeth biting hard, only for the hair to come off entirely, followed by a long string of glue. He was bitten in the arm while trying to retrieve his precious wig from the critter, which was ravenously devouring it like a dead small animal. Thus did Chiu Yi join the army of the undead, though before partaking in the bloodletting his mangled corpse dragged itself into the nearest wig store, where, after browsing for a while, he awkwardly affixed a long, curly blond thing from a bygone era on his head.

An old wrinkled white man, long known for taking liberties with young local women, limped about for hours in the downtown area, thirsting only for pretty young live things. Over time his cold, clawed hands eventually became less and less selective.

In a more disreputable part of town, Jimmy the gray-haired lawyer met his end — as did his crooning — at the hands of a death-white mama san in the basement of his favorite KTV lounge. When the singing resumed, the ululating voice was such that the nearby undead stopped in their tracks, turned around, and headed straight for the lounge, where they proceeded to end the singing once and for all.

For several hours, a white Toyota bearing the red flags of the Chinese and Soviet communists drove round and round the city, blasting equally communistic music. At the wheel, a man whose head had been split in half, brain matter staining his side of the car, carried on until the car ran out of gas. Even after that he remained at the wheel, his dead car in the middle of a major artery, the choir and brass of the orchestra bouncing off the walls of an increasingly silent city.

The National Palace Museum, home to thousands of Chinese artifacts, was in ruins, the victim of a fire that had raged since the first day of the emergency, when a Chinese tourist burst into the canteen’s kitchen and slaughtered all the chefs in sight before attacking the oven. By a strange twist of fate, the tourist, who was never identified as he soon served as fuel for the flames, had been bitten at the airport by no other than Li Qinjian, our index case. The fire was such that on that fateful day it could be observed from the top of Taipei 101, distracting a foreign visitor at the observation deck long enough for him to become the victim of — you guessed it, Li Qinjian. Many noted the irony in the museum’s destruction at the hands of the Chinese, as its priceless artifacts, stolen by the Chiang Kai-shek regime after his Nationalist troops were defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949 and shipped by the crate across the Taiwan Strait, had survived years of Japanese bombardment during World War II and the many twists and turns of the Chinese Civil War. Once again, cynics noted, the Communists were annihilating their own culture. Even in death they couldn’t avoid doing so, a few hardcore Nationalists exclaimed.

Poor Li was indeed the first infected case to enter Taiwan, but he wasn’t the source of the epidemic. Speaking on condition of strict anonymity lest they be imprisoned, Chinese officials at Shanghai Pudong International Airport told reporters that witnesses had seen a flight attendant viciously attack Li in the airport’s washroom a few minutes prior to departure. Needless to say, the witnesses were never seen again, the victims, presumably, of forces as equally rapacious as those of the undead that were now marching on Taiwan. Li, who did his best to conceal the ugly bite mark on his neck, died in mid-flight, and returned the favor on another unwitting traveler after landing in Taiwan.

No one ever came forth with a good explanation for the epidemic, with scientists pointing to a number of possible causes, from wild animals to the consumption of meat infected with a new strain of rage. Some blamed the hapless civet, which already stood trial during the SARS epidemic. Other, more philosophically inclined observers, pointed to something much darker, to a social malaise that had gone out of control. Whatever the cause, cannibalism — infectious cannibalism — was the outcome.

On the second night, while legislators and city councilors barricaded themselves inside the legislature an at city hall (not unfamiliar scenes in more normal times), the horrified residents of Da-an District in Taipei locked their doors and shut their windows as the gray minions congregated at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, barging into the great hall and turning the monument to a tyrant, imperturbable even in this hour of terror, into a house of the creeping dead. All round the marble structure, dismembered ghouls in various stages of decay gathered on the steps, howling at the moon, as all life around them fled out of instinct. Why the undead made the house of the long-dead dictator their home remains a mystery. In the days ahead, the living would also observe a tendency among the dead to stop in their tracks and fall to their knees whenever they came upon images of Mao Zedong, whose plump face had in recent months begun appearing on advertisements outside various banks that were promoting the recent introduction of the Renminbi currency exchange. The old mass murderer, some said, had been the first zombie to enter Taiwan, his undead eyes selecting victims well before Li Qinjian had boarded that flight in Shanghai.

Police forces in Taipei did their best to contain the crisis, but were soon overwhelmed by an army whose ranks only continued to increase. At this point, there was no way of telling whether the crisis remained confined to the capital or had begun spreading elsewhere. All trains, flights, buses, boats and roads leaving Taipei had by Day 2 been cancelled and blocked, and the city of four million was in quarantine. There really was no way of telling whether the effort was sufficient and timely enough. All that could be done was to wait, and pray.

It didn’t take long before cases of similar horror were reported elsewhere on the island. As it turns out, even if the quarantine had succeeded (it did not, the high-speed rail taking care of pollinating the nation along a north-south axis on the very first day of the emergency), a new discovery soon alerted the army of the living to a new, equally disturbing threat.

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