Chapter 1: Sleeplessness

The meteorologist said that the polar ice caps will melt, and there will be a second ice age that will kill all plant life. The astronomer said that a huge asteroid will collide with the earth, leading to a cataclysmic event: tidal waves miles high and undersea volcanoes erupting.

And yet no one paid attention to the lowly immunologist. They thought she was insane: a crazy conspiracist who just likes attention. After all, whoever thought that a virus would mutate enough to alter the structures of the brain? But it’s not like most people in the scientific community were wrong as well. Before, only prions—misfolded proteins able to replicate themselves—were able to affect the brain enough to cause a myriad of personality-changing symptoms.

No, it’s not like in zombie movies where the rabies virus mutated to cause hyper-aggressiveness in individuals. It was something more subtle, more sinister, and more fundamental than that.

It started out innocently enough: a family in Guangzhou (it’s always China) began to exhibit symptoms similar to insomnia. First, it was the mom; she explained to the doctor that she began to have less and less sleep starting the week before. But she also said that it perhaps was because of her caffeine consumption (she worked long hours at an iPhone assembly factory). They took away her caffeine and gave her barbiturates to no avail: her ability to sleep continued to deteriorate.

The doctors had no reason to think it was an infectious disease. You see, that was how diagnostics work. Occam’s Razor, physicians would say. What is the best explanation for an illness? Insomnia has a multitude of differential diagnoses, from substance abuse to depression to something as farfetched as fatal insomnia. But the caffeine was the most logical suspect. Too bad it was also the wrong one.

They agreed that fatal insomnia was the likely culprit when the ten-year old daughter also started to exhibit the same symptoms. The disease was genetic, and sadly always fatal. They did the tests: the white matter in the brain showed significant degeneration. The sleep study and PET scans also supported the diagnosis. But genetic testing, frustratingly enough, came back negative. Back to zero.

The prevailing theory was that it was another variant of FFI, or some related wasting disease, until the father also started losing sleep. By then the mother and daughter have not been able to sleep for a week and are fast becoming irritable. Barbiturates didn’t help at all; it actually made the symptoms worse. It became so bad that they had to put the daughter under a medically induced coma, hoping it would alleviate the symptoms. It didn’t work either. She appeared “asleep,” but gamma waves appeared rampant on the EEG. She was very much awake.

There was a measure of concern and excitement then at the local Chinese medical community. Surely, it was a tragedy, but discovering a new disease and its mechanism will do very much for their individual prestige as physicians. The poor family of three became nothing but lab rats to a series of increasingly dangerous and experimental treatments, but they neither had the courage nor the energy to say no. Soon, the mother became catatonic, having had no sleep for almost a month. The daughter soon followed, and the father could only watch as his beloved wife finally passed on.

Throughout this ordeal, it seemed like the scientific community didn’t care. They still thought that they were at the cusp of some scientific discovery; they were not wrong. They did discover something, alright. But it was all too late when they realized what they had.

Soon, the head diagnostician started losing sleep as well. Big deal, he thought; it was usual for doctors to have long hours and ironically he sometimes cannot sleep too immediately after. But soon the other attending doctors followed suit. Then the nurses. Then the orderlies.

It was a virus, I told them. I told the head diagnostician as well, when he was required to seek second opinions when he himself cannot diagnose it. They thought that infectious disease doctors like me would of course always look at viruses as the cause…like neurologists like him would see prions. It was too late when they accepted I was right: the whole hospital was already infected, and soon Guangzhou literally became the city that never slept.

Wan’an Virus, they called it. Good night, it meant. It sounded so perverse, but apt.

The thing with a highly connected country like China was, even with their excellent lockdown responses, a virus as infectious as Wanan couldn’t 100% be contained. As soon as word got out that another potential pandemic was happening, people stupidly did the counterintuitive thing (as people do) and drove, sailed, and flew away from the epicenter. Soon, the “sleeplessness” was everywhere: a mere two days after the whistle was blown, Wan’an was in London, then Istanbul, then Tokyo. The next day, it reached our shores here in Manila.

I’m sorry if I have to tell you such a horrible bedtime story, but I felt like I needed to let you know all of this. I haven’t slept in three days myself, after all, and soon I will be part of the sleepless. Don’t worry, I will never hurt you. I will never be part of those crazed crowds outside that kill each other, acting out their frustrations at the most primal level. Besides, you can save us.

My instincts as an immunologist suggest that there should be more people like you: those who can resist or are even immune to the virus. It is just unfortunate that you are also just nine years old. You need someone who can help you if you are to rebuild this world. But after I pass, perhaps you can find others like you. Perhaps you can live on and save humanity, for surely this world as I knew it is no more. But you have tomorrow to think about that. For now, you should rest.

Sleep well, Hiraya. Good night.

Jay-ar G. Paloma

Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here:

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