It wasn’t a hospital. For some reason Tam had automatically assumed that when METMA came to town, they would take over the hospital. Instead, they had taken over a disused commercial park.
The entrance was cordoned off with crash barriers. There were large and small hangar-like buildings with the rusted insignia of dead companies on the sides. Various men, uniformed and otherwise, were speaking to each other or racing between buildings with stacks of papers, laptops and ringing phones. Misfortunate members of the public were scattered everywhere.
Tamara pulled up at the gate where a soldier halted her. Beside him sat an office drone with a laptop on a card table.
The soldier asked if she had Infected in the car and she nodded and pointed to the man next to her, who had a huge white bandage wrapped around his head in costume-injury style. The soldier said, “One Infected, male, accompanied by one female.” The drone punched some digits and a printer hummed. Tamara was handed a sheet of A4 paper with the number 851 printed on it large three times. This was three makeshift tickets. One for her, one for Caleb, one for the car.
The soldier directed her to a car park which was just an open area of grey dirt. It was busy and haphazard but she found a spot. She took the water and pepper spray and left everything else. They went back to what looked like the beginning of the process: six queues of people leading to the doors of offices that were sandwiched together like concrete holiday chalets. A few other buildings had been occupied but there was not much order. She could hear the hum of many voices in the distance. Soldiers, stewards, militia, suits and scientists were all struggling to maintain some continuity. The effect of so many people in a place that was recently abandoned was surreal. It was like a haunting that had suddenly become a top tourist attraction.
The line moved fast and they ended up in a small, stale office whose windows were broken. They sat at a desk opposite a bureaucrat in a papery shirt. He processed them with an efficiency born of sleep deprivation. He took their names, ages and addresses. He wrote everything down longhand; nobody had given him a computer. He asked how long Caleb had been infected, and what symptoms he had shown so far. He told them that there were two areas: one for Caleb, where he would be looked after, and a waiting area where Tam could wait.
Then he asked if Tamara was authorised to act as Caleb’s next of kin. They didn’t have much choice, although Caleb had brothers and sisters in other states and his parents were still alive. But METMA needed a Guardian who would be responsible.
“Do you consent to medical procedures in the interest of health and wellbeing?” said the bureaucrat. Tam was about to say of course they did, but he added, “If you say yes, you waive the right to more information about these procedures in the future.”
She looked at Caleb. He seemed tired. His eyes were glazed. “Yes,” she said.
“Do you accept,” said the bureaucrat, “That the Microbiological Emergency Threat Management Agency are not responsible for the death of the Victim once you are within this facility?”
“What the fuck?” said Tam. This, in combination with the first, was insane. The man didn’t look up from his papers. His pen hovered. His crinkly shirt flapped in a gust. “All right, all right,” she said.
The bureaucrat ticked a box on his form. Then he clicked his pen and looked at her with a smile. “Sorry about that,” he said. “We have to indemnify ourselves.” Tam smiled weakly. “One last thing,” he said. “At this stage, I’d like to ask you if you would be interested in assisted suicide.”
Tamara let that sit there as if she assumed it was a joke. After a few seconds the bureaucrat held his hands out pleadingly. “You have to understand,” he said. “They are working on a cure but victims don’t live long and when they die, they progress to the next stage. This can be traumatic. However, if the victim dies before they are killed by the disease, well… they stay dead. That’s why we make this offer. There are soldiers here. They are professionals. If you choose this path, they will guarantee a quick end.”
“Thanks,” Caleb said, “But no thanks.”
“Fine,” he said, and sat back. “Just putting it out there.”