THE LONELY WARD

《孤单病房》

The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓)

Jour­ney into the dark re­cesses of the mind with Hugo Award-win­ner Hao Jing­fang for this firstever English trans­la­tion of a near-fu­ture tale of frus­tra­tion, bore­dom, and a world where mor­tal bliss is so eas­ily at­tain­able yet so com­pletely de­struc­tive

In a world of de­sire, ego can be ter­mi­nal

寂寞的生命,虚幻的慰藉,雨果奖得主郝景芳笔下的未来精神世界

Only Qi Na and Hanyi were left at the clinic; the oth­ers had hap­pily re­turned home.

Qi Na was a bit un­happy. All women who find them­selves en­gaged in a cold war with a boyfriend are a bit un­happy. She’d de­cided to not con­tact him or take his calls, but she still se­cretly mon­i­tored his on­line ac­tiv­ity and reg­u­larly changed her own on­line sta­tus; she didn’t believe for a sec­ond that he wouldn’t be watch­ing.

She pow­ered up the screens on ev­ery piece of fur­ni­ture in the room—on the ta­ble, the fil­ing cab­i­net, the medicine cab­i­net—screens lit up every­where. Col­or­ful web­pages were dis­played side by side, ex­ag­ger­ated smiles and faces turned up­wards which dis­ap­peared silently, form­ing a multi-col­ored wall­pa­per. The Net­work Sec­re­tary flit­ted about look­ing for traces of Paul’s ac­tiv­ity re­lated to Qi Na.

Hanyi went to check on the pa­tients. Qi Na didn’t see the point; they were as they al­ways were, not liv­ing but re­fus­ing to die. It was a pain to care for them, but Hanyi went at the ap­pointed time ev­ery day to check on them. She was the type of per­son who would clean ev­ery last grain of rice out of any bowl you gave her, whose hat and gloves were al­ways in or­der. Qi Na thought of her as from being a dif­fer­ent world.

She wrote: “If de­pres­sion is pro­tein, who’s go­ing to help me with my di­ges­tion?” Qi Na chuck­led to her­self as she fin­ished writ­ing the sen­tence and felt a bit better. She held onto the pen as she thought of what to write next.

Hanyi came back. “Come, there’s a prob­lem with Num­ber 21.”

Qi Na didn’t want to move. Head low­ered, she held her note­book as she fid­dled with a draft. “What pos­si­ble prob­lem could there be?”

“Come and have a look. I’m afraid the pa­tient might go into shock soon.”

“Ugh, yeah, a big deal, I’m sure.” Qi Na threw the pen for­ward. “It’s al­ways the same stuff. It’s such a pain.”

“I think we might have to up the in­ten­sity,” Hanyi, ex­plained. “You need to come and help me con­firm.”

The two of them walked into the hall­way. Qi Na set the Net­work Sec­re­tary to vi­brate mode, and stuffed the mo­bile back in her pocket. She did up the but­tons on her uni­form, re­veal­ing the pleas­ing curves of her body.

There was no­body in the hall­way. An empty surgery cart and IV bags lay near the wall, as well as a large bag of med­i­cal waste wait­ing to be taken away. There were small, white lights on ei­ther side of the room, which made fright­en­ing shapes as they shone upon the en­cephalo­graphs and pic­tures.

Qi Na tossed a piece of candy into her mouth as she spoke: “I re­ally don’t get it. Fam­ily mem­bers bring pa­tients here when there’s re­ally noth­ing wrong with them. It’s not like they’re go­ing to die, they’d be fine at home.”

Hanyi spoke gen­tly: “You can’t speak like that. It’s nor­mal for peo­ple to be a bit overly wor­ried when their close rel­a­tives are in­volved. We should be un­der­stand­ing.”

“Yeah. You’re a liv­ing bod­hisattva, and I’m a lit­tle yak a1.” Qi Na put her hands into the pock­ets of her uni­form as she pranced down the stairs, kick­ing her feet a bit with each lit­tle step.

Hanyi was un­fazed: “We have the proper fa­cil­i­ties, as well as the abil­ity to pro­vide pro­fes­sional care.”

“What­ever,” Qi Na laughed. “Our lame-ass brain­wave ma­chines? In this day and age any­one can buy a cou­ple elec­trodes, at­tach them at home, pump them­selves up. It’s not like our ma­chines are better.”

“We have our pro­ce­dures. We can avoid ran­dom-gen­er­a­tion repli­ca­tion events, so the re­sults are better.”

“Who cares about repli­ca­tion events? Do you think they re­mem­ber the sto­ries the ma­chine feeds them from day to day? The ma­chine could just feed them 100 yel­low duck­lings quack­ing and the re­sult would be the same, I bet.”

The two of them reached the ward. Hanyi stopped, and sighed se­ri­ously.

“Look,” Hanyi said. “Some peo­ple come here be­cause they’re at the end of their rope. Ev­ery­one in the fam­ily is af­flicted by the same dis­ease. They’re all bedrid­den, and no­body’s avail­able to take care of any­one else. It’s re­ally sad.”

Qi Na didn’t say any­thing. In­stead, she just stuck out her tongue.

Hanyi seated her glasses with her fin­ger and spoke se­ri­ously, like a pro­fes­sor giv­ing a lec­ture: “This phe­nom­e­non is quite se­ri­ous. Last week I spoke at a con­fer­ence about it. More and more peo­ple are being hos­pi­tal­ized, and it’s start­ing to con­sti­tute a fixed chunk of the

pop­u­la­tion. That alone is se­ri­ous. As the trend con­tin­ues, less at­ten­tion is de­voted to one an­other in real life, which leads to an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion of in­pa­tients. It’s a cy­cle, and it will re­sult, in the end, in ev­ery­one being hooked up to ma­chines. You can’t ig­nore the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. It’s a new kind of social anx­i­ety, and if we don’t ded­i­cate our­selves to ac­knowl­edg­ing and re­search­ing it, it may in­crease in se­ri­ous­ness. The book I’ve been work­ing on lately dis­cusses this prob­lem. It’s go­ing to be pub­lished soon, and when that hap­pens it’ll be the most de­tailed record on this spe­cific topic. I ap­plied the­o­ries from stud­ies on social anx­i­ety. If you’re in­ter­ested, I can bring you a copy of the ini­tial draft next week.”

Qi Na pur­posely looked past Hanyi. “Hey, why is Num­ber 20 sit­ting up?”

Hanyi turned around quickly. “Ah? What?”

“Oh, he’s ly­ing down again,” said Qi Na.

Hanyi didn’t say any­thing more, and went into the ward with Qi Na. Qi Na turned on all the screens on the cab­i­nets and walls, and web­pages filled the room. She hur­riedly checked her sta­tus up­date, and found two replies, both emoti­cons from her friends, but noth­ing from Paul. A bit an­grily, she spanked the Net­work Sec­re­tary’s plump bot­tom, and sent her away to search the sea of in­for­ma­tion. Hanyi looked a bit dis­pleased, and told Qi Na to quit play­ing around, but Qi Na pre­tended not to hear.

They went over to lift up pa­tient Num­ber 21. Num­ber 21 was al­ready twitch­ing, with a hand in front of her chest, two fingers curled in, as her body con­vulsed weakly. The two of them helped her up, wiped her face and mouth, and mas­saged her arms, giv­ing her a bit of clean wa­ter to drink and medicine. Num­ber 21 was a fat woman in her 40s with lit­tle hair, but her skin was still in good con­di­tion. Her eyes re­mained closed when she sat up. Qi Na re­mem­bered that she’d been in a coma for a while.

“What’s the point of liv­ing like this?” Qi Na mut­tered.

“Well, at least she’s still alive,” said Hanyi. “Not much dif­fer­ent from a lot of peo­ple.”

“If I were in this po­si­tion, I’d just pre­fer to die,” Qi Na said. “Re­ly­ing on oth­ers day in and day out, might as well just GG out.”

“Well, then what else can you rely on to live?” Hanyi said. “Wrote about this in my book…”

They were just about to con­nect Num­ber 21 to the BWM when Num­ber 20 started to gasp, as if suf­fo­cat­ing, try­ing to take big breaths but seem­ingly un­able to breathe—it sounded quite painful. Num­ber 20 was a short, unattrac­tive man. Al­though he was in a coma, his fam­ily mem­bers kept his ap­pear­ance up, ex­e­cut­ing his comb-over flaw­lessly each time. He gripped his hos­pi­tal gown as if grip­ping the lapels of a suit jacket. He gasped and fur­rowed his brow, the look on his face one of an­guish as he strug­gled pow­er­fully. It took a lot of ef­fort on the part of the two of them to get him to lie down, and con­nect the elec­trodes. When the BWM was turned on, and the cur­rent be­gan to flow, he slowly calmed down.

Num­ber 20’s dis­ease was quite typ­i­cal. When this kind of dis­ease first started to turn up, a lot of peo­ple thought it was a prob­lem with the lungs or tra­chea, but no­body could find any­thing wrong. Oxy­gen ther­apy didn’t help, and in­di­vid­u­als ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fi­cul­ties in both supine and sit­ting po­si­tions. Mis­di­ag­no­sis had led to two pa­tient deaths. When some­one thought to use neu­ral os­cil­la­tion tech­niques, they dis­cov­ered the true na­ture of the dis­ease: cere­bral derange­ment-re­lated res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease.

It was then that the Net­work Sec­re­tary re­ported that Paul had left a foot­print on an­other girl’s web­page. He had com­mented.

Qi Na ran over to the cab­i­net and glared at Paul’s com­ment. It was just two words, “oh yeah”, but it stung her eyes. The re­cip­i­ent of his com­ment wasn’t some­one the two of them knew, but rather an in­ter­net celebrity, the pretty spokes­woman of a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, quite pop­u­lar re­cently for pro­mot­ing new tech prod­ucts. She fre­quently talked about new trends in tech, and Paul was a fan. Re­ally, no­body cared what she talked about; she was just pretty. From what Qi Na could see, she al­ways made a huge show of pho­tograph­ing her­self with new prod­ucts, but it was to show­case her­self rather than what­ever she was pos­ing with. She was a poseur, who loved more than any­thing to be fawned over. Pub­lic­ity was what she craved—van­ity was her in­san­ity. What was most ridicu­lous was how peo­ple flocked to praise her ev­ery day.

Qi Na shook with rage as she added a new line to her page: “Van­ity is shame­ful.”

She looked again. Those two words were still there, cut­ting at her like a knife. Dur­ing her cold war with Paul, he hadn’t mes­saged her once, but he had time go and say “oh yeah” to some other pretty girl? Je­sus H. Christ, Qi Na felt like she couldn’t go on liv­ing. She looked at the post Paul had left his dumb com­ment on: “New prod­uct: Net­work Cloak, lets you hide from the Net­work Sec­re­tary.” Oh, so he’s now try­ing to hide from me. This is too much.

Qi Na up­dated her sta­tus again: “FYAD, de­spair. If my mem­o­ries are thirsty, they can drink aqua re­gia2. ”

She took her anger out on the Net­work Sec­re­tary, pok­ing and hit­ting her fluffy body. The Net­work Sec­re­tary didn’t get an­gry, and just ran around the screen try­ing to avoid the beat­ing, go­ing to cower in the cor­ner, look­ing up at Qi Na, her big eyes full of tears. Qi Na grew tired of abus­ing the virtual as­sis­tant, and went back to join Hanyi. Hanyi had al­ready cleaned the fore­heads and faces of Num­bers 22 and 23.

“It’s al­most 11,” Hanyi said, look­ing at her watch. “I need to go to the lab

to check on the in­cu­ba­tor. You can take care of the re­main­ing pa­tients.”

She spoke as she walked with even, smooth steps out of the door, back per­fectly straight. It was ex­actly 11 o’ clock in the evening, not a minute ear­lier or later.

Left all lone, Qi Na felt aban­doned, and her de­spair grew. She wanted to cry, but af­ter a few sec­onds of boohoo, she found the tears wouldn’t come. She stomped her foot an­grily. Her heart felt si­mul­ta­ne­ously swollen with sad­ness and empty, lonely. Even the swelling couldn’t fill the void. She closed all the web­pages, and the room en­tered into dark­ness. The cab­i­nets and walls re­turned to solid panes of gray-white, cold, flat metal­lic sur­faces. Like an emo­tion­less, cold god, they looked at her from afar.

Qi Na was low-key rag­ing as she turned on the BWM, gen­er­at­ing the re­quired in­for­ma­tion and con­nect­ing the elec­trodes as she care­lessly slapped the elec­trodes on each pa­tient’s head. She didn’t know if her bad mood would in­flu­ence the ran­dom gen­er­a­tion com­po­nent of the ma­chines, and even if it did, she didn’t care. She was about to go through a breakup. How could she have time to worry about these veg­eta­bles? Num­ber 22 was a fe­male celebrity past her prime. She was pretty when she was young, but aged rapidly, and af­ter she turned 30, no­body paid at­ten­tion to her. Num­ber 23 was some dude with an easy job who was al­ways pub­lish­ing es­says to ar­gue with oth­ers, say­ing the peo­ple who were cur­rently pop­u­lar were all mo­rons, and that he was a great au­thor—just as Kafka and Cao Xue­qin hadn’t had any nov­els pub­lished while they were still liv­ing, he hadn’t, ei­ther. Each pa­tient had a spe­cific pro­gram which gen­er­ated phrases suited for them.

Qi Na looked at the words on the man­age­ment con­sole for each pa­tient to con­firm that the BWMS were de­liv­er­ing the cor­rect cur­rent flow.

The cur­rent flowed slowly. “Oh yeah! You live your own way! Your body is smok­ing! That re­vi­tal­iz­ing soup you showed off, I went home and made some, it was great! You’re so hot! You’ve got dem curves, you so sexy, so much more fly than those bone-ass skinny skanks! Ahh, they soo nasty!” These were for Num­ber 21. Num­ber 21’s body twisted as if she felt shy, a sweet smile ap­pear­ing on her face. Her fat stom­ach messed up the sheets, pulling the top sheet to the side. It took no end of ef­fort for Qi Na to get her sheets flat be­fore wiping away her saliva.

“Oh, we’re all your fans! You’re such a mag­nan­i­mous per­son! I love to hear your lec­tures! You’re hi­lar­i­ous! I didn’t want to live any­more, but hear­ing your lec­ture gave me brav­ery and strength!” These were for Num­ber 20. Num­ber 20’s body con­vulsed a bit with ex­cite­ment, and he arched his waist while ab­sorb­ing these words.

“Do you re­mem­ber me? I’ve sup­ported you for a decade. Your per­for­mances are so great, way better than these so-called stars to­day! So­ci­ety’s de­clined, but I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber you! You’re a clas­sic! I love you!” These were for Num­ber 22. Num­ber 22 had been rel­a­tively calm all along, eyes closed. The cor­ners of her mouth up­turned slightly, and she ex­tended her arms out­ward, like some kind of fe­male de­ity.

“Keep go­ing strong! You’re an in­tel­lec­tual bea­con for all hu­man­ity! You’re a brave war­rior. Those re­tards don’t un­der­stand your depth! They’ll just pull you down. All those peo­ple are just pre­tenders; they at­tack you be­cause you speak the truth! You’re go­ing to be re­mem­bered by the times!” These were for Num­ber 23. He was nois­ier, not only pas­sively ac­cept­ing the words from the BWM, but also con­tin­u­ously mum­bling, his tone chang­ing along with the in­put. He was stress­ing some kind of opin­ion back and forth. Qi Na couldn’t clearly hear what he was say­ing but could make out that he was us­ing all man­ners of tone and phras­ing to re­peat the same things, ag­gres­sively, the cur­rent from the ma­chine serv­ing as his war drums.

By the time she was fin­ished with all the pa­tients it was past mid­night. She sat on an empty bed, ex­hausted. Ex­hausted phys­i­cally, ex­hausted emo­tion­ally. It felt like she was the only per­son left in the world. The dull metal­lic im­ple­ments of the room only made her feel more bland. She pulled out her mo­bile, and made a few more com­ments. It was the mid­dle of the night, and ev­ery­one was asleep. No­body replied, and there were no fur­ther signs of Paul. The only sound was the smooth crack­ling of the cur­rent. She sat, weak, in the mid­dle of the room, the gray walls and floor seem­ing to be the en­tire world.

It would be fine if I tried it once, she thought. Just once.

She lay down on the empty bed, and at­tached a few elec­trodes to her fore­head, closed her eyes, and pressed the ma­roon switch on the ma­chine. The ma­chine hummed a bit, and then scanned her brain’s thought pat­terns. Then, she be­gan to hear a hyp­no­tis­ing kind of chat­ter, like her friends were talk­ing about some­thing right­eous, like a ven­er­a­ble elder were de­liv­er­ing a mean­ing­ful lec­ture. Her mind felt like it was being warmly mas­saged, com­fort­able. Her breath­ing evened out and the gray ward dis­ap­peared. She saw the green grass and cool dew un­der the ris­ing sun. “You’re so deep, shal­low peo­ple won’t get you!” Words seem­ing to come from a place of au­thor­ity echoed warmly in her mind. “You’re quite pretty, better than those su­per­fi­cial sil­lies. It’s just that you don’t go out of your way to show it off. Van­ity is shame­ful, and peo­ple who show off will be­come de­spised sooner or later! You’re much more with it. Peo­ple who love you will dis­cover this.” Qi Na calmed down as she heard these words, and the world filled up. Paul seemed so far away, so unim­por­tant. She wasn’t sure if she was asleep or awake, she just felt the green leaves swirling around her un­der the gen­tle sun­light. In a hazy, half-awake, half-asleep state she thought, well, it would be just fine if things con­tin­ued like this for­ever. -

A de­mon in Bud­dhist lit­er­a­ture.

Nitric acid hy­drochlo­ride, ca­pa­ble of dis­solv­ing gold and plat­inum.

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