THE LONELY WARD
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
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. -