The train ran completely underground for the entire five hour trip, taking them from the small train station and emerging indoors in the Hospital District. Rosa wanted to see Washington DC but she also didn't want to be disappointed. She knew it wouldn't look like she remembered it from years ago.
She held Fred's hand for most of the trip. “Do you think there's a chance this will work?” she asked him. She had olive skinned hands. Fred's fingers were long and soft. He was ten years her senior.
“We're doing this to take care of our people,” he said. “We can still be doctors here.”
The train pulled into the underground station and they were led through a checkpoint station. After their papers were scanned, the guard told them to take their masks off. They looked at him incredulously.
“You can really do that here?” Rosa asked.
He laughed. “Everybody asks that. Negative airflow everywhere. Totally enclosed. I let my kids go mask free all the time.”
It was remarkable. Masks were the law at home. They hadn't been in public without one for months. Rosa stuck them in her purse, just in case.
The escalator led to a platform with a set of tall doors that had plastic suction-cup sides like a refrigerator case. They had circular holes up above them on each side. When you pushed the doors open they closed behind you with a satisfying slurp and held fast.
They walked into a giant courtyard. The white ceiling was arched and rose up fifty feet overhead. Each of the far walls seemed to be lined with the plastic suction edged doors and above there were more of the giant holes lining the ceiling. Everything else was ornate and lovely. Adults and children were coming and going and carrying shopping bags to and from the train. A TV monitor in what looked like a central plaza showed a graph with the number of cases and a picture of a doctor talking. But that was the outside world. They're not keeping apart, Rosa thought, they don't have to here, they can play. She touched her stomach. The room reminded her of the shopping malls she had gone to as a child, back when you could travel without papers.
A woman in a bright pink suit had a sign with their names on it. She was young and she had an infectious smile. “Welcome! Fred and Rosa! My new doctors!” It was hard not to feel at ease. You could breathe the air deeply here. No masks. It felt like the old times.
She made small talk with them as she led them around the giant building, which seemed to have no beginning and no end. Fred was talking about the RNA vaccine research and how slowly it was going. The PR manager was talking about the District. There were stores everywhere and benches and giant leafy trees lining the marble walkways.
“Consolidation, that's the way. Five hundred doctor offices. Full genetic testing, on site, immediately, for every patient. Isolated beds, full video hookup. We have our own water supply. Completely self contained. Plenty of fencing, but we've never needed it,” she said. “These days you can’t be too careful.”
“What are all the giant holes in the ceiling for,” Rosa asked.
The woman must have not heard her, because she didn't answer. “Do you purify water through reverse osmosis?” Fred asked.
“Yes, reverse filtration and ionization,” she said.
“So everyone lives in here, too,” Rosa said.
“Well this is the main plaza. The housing units for doctors are sort of in a circular distribution around the main campus where the public apartments are-” The lights flickered for a moment in the main lobby. Nobody seemed upset. “Sorry about that,” said the manager. “I think they’re having snow on the outside. Sometimes we get fluctuations but we’ve got three of our own clean burning generators in the District. And the best movie theater in town!” said the manager. She adjusted her suit. “Totally joking but of course that’s the way. Total safety in and out. Plague stays out, patients stay safe. Being shielded from weather is a bonus. I miss the seasons being in here, it’s not like living in Ohio, that’s the only thing.”
“Well that makes me feel more confident,” Dr Fred said. “We’re from the country. It seemed like the right time to move. ”
“Life here is much better than you see on the news. Before I moved here I hadn't seen a movie in a year. Where are you from?”
“Very small town. We didn’t even start to see cases until six months ago.”
“Well you’ll be glad the two of you joined us,” said the manager. “Really the District and the wards are the safest places right now. I know people hear “camps” and think tents and outhouses but it's nothing like that at all. They're so well funded, actually. If you’re in house with us it’s even better. Just look around!” She gestured to the marble floors and the fountain. “I hear your hospital had to close?”
“We lost the whole staff. Too many infections,” said Rosa. “No deaths. But a six month quarantine for 10 people. This arrangement is too good not to look into. ”
“That’s a shame,” the manager said. “But other practitioners are doing the same thing. Let me show you the cafeterias.” She gestured them down a another long hall with marble flooring. “How are is your staff taking the change?”
“We’ve been a little worried,” said Rosa. “Several of them were lower income and -“
“Well which ward were they transferred to?”
“Julie and Donnette to 29 - the receptionist to 28...”
“Well those are the best!” she smiled. “People are always nervous when they hear they’re getting quarantined. My aunt was that way. Really nervous. But they’re always thrilled when they see it. Three solid meals a day, comfortable beds, entertainment. Only work when you want to. It’s like the hotels used to be. And they can see you for their health care. So we still have that doctor-patient relationship that's so important. 28 is just a couple miles from here. That’s the one with the musicians and the public pool I think. It’s a whole little society in there. I mean some people don’t want to leave even after their six months is up. They have a financing plan if you're healthy and want to stay.”
Rosa smiled. “It’s good to hear that from someone who knows.”
“We didn’t know what to expect. It was so sudden when they had to leave,” said Fred.
“How are the patients moved from the ward to the hospital?” asked Rosa.
“Oh we have a really great tunnel system. Totally secure. I'll show you,” she said. They took an industrial elevator that was off in a side hallway and rode down for a long time. When they stepped out they were in a service tunnel, then they walked down another long downsloping hall with yellow brick walls that had branches in multiple directions. Rosa realized this was probably an older tunnel system connected to what had used to be a hospital used for patient transportation.
Finally they came to a plastic door like the one that had led into the plaza. Just like the entryway from the train, this door had what looked like plastic seals on either side and two giant circular openings up above, one on the left and one on the right above the door, and a mesh grate covering each hole. A security card opened the door, which pulled open with a suctioning noise and then sucked close behind them. It led into an area with a slightly moist concrete floor that had the smell of oil and a low humming sound like an turbine.
In the center of the tunnel room was a huge enclosed tunnel, ten feet high and at least two hundred yards long, running through the center perpendicular to them and cutting the room in two. One side ran to the wall that must have opened up to the outside, Rosa guessed, and the other to an unseen room. You could walk up to the giant cylinder which sloped down in front of them to their feet and feel the metal chill and tell that the weather outside must be been snow and ice. It was much colder in the tunnel room than anywhere else so far. Movement and muffled activity was coming from inside. It felt like a living thing with a heartbeat pulsing underneath. But it was solid and impossible to see through.
The thought of what lay inside it that she couldn’t see gave her a feeling that made Rosa a little sad. Her ear tried to listen closer to the noises. She had grown up on a cattle farm but now those were gone.
“This is the entry tunnel for Wards 21 through 24,” the manager said. “It‘s a pretty good example. Inital assessment and triage all done in there. Even some minor surgeries. After everyone is stabilized by the AI service we connect them to video right from your office. When you're done they can go back home the same way,” she said.
“AI? You mean-“
“We don’t want to put any humans at risk,” the manager said. “And AI is better and faster at stabilization than we are anyway.”
The lights flickered again, just for a moment, then came back on. The PR manager’s radio buzzed and she answered a cell phone call. “Ok”, she said, hanging up. “No problem. Still just some bad weather in Ward 25. It can make the generators touchy.”
Rosa had her hand against the tube. “How do they pay for treatment? What happens if people can’t pay?” she asked.
“Oh like I said they have assistance and financing programs for food and housing-“
“What’s the particle transmission rate from inside to outside here?” Fred interrupted.
“Between 0.03 and 0.05%. Too small to be any risk. You'll never get all of it but we do remarkably well. Negative airflow through the whole structure. Polycarbonate filtering, and everyone is gowned and masked inside.”
“I think we want to see the living quarters as well. And the computer system,” Fred said.
“We can go the office and discuss benefits and housing if you want,” said the manager. “Or would you rather have some lunch first? The main dining area has a New York deli theme this week. It's fantastic. All you can eat. Do you remember those? You can eat inside and sit down and everything now. Do you like pastrami?”
The lights flickered and this time went out completely. A red glow came back and lit up the tunnel room.
The manager’s cell phone chirped again.
“Ok, “ she said, looking down. “Everything's fine, we just need to move back upstairs-
There was shouting inside the tube. A muffled computer voice from behind the metal wall said, move back, move back. There was a pushing gestational thud - thud - thud of tremendous force on the other side, like an animal trying to escape.
“Don't worry - nothing can get through - “ said the manager. But then the lights went out completely and in the dark there was a tremendous crash. They heard the sound of air sucking in hard and water splashing out and they were thrown to the wet floor.
Everything was dark for a few seconds. Then the red lights came back on and they heard shouting, desperate voices. The room was a mess, water and metal everywhere and dust.
Rosa looked up through the chaos, her ears ringing. She was very disoriented. Fred was against the back wall and bleeding and wasn't moving. She had hit her head hard. In the remains of the tunnel saw fifteen or twenty frail bodies standing in the hole that had blown open. Some of them looked petrified and some were shouting. There were a few children. One looked he was bleeding.
Standing in the front of the breach was a emaciated haggard woman wearing a hospital gown. Rosa was the only one alert enough to make eye contact. The woman had brown hair that was missing in patches. Snow was blowing in from the outside through the hole. The woman's lips were icicle blue. She had the weeping red vesicles all over her skin that Rosa knew meant she had the virus and it was in late stages. Neither she nor the people behind her seemed to know, now that they had created the hole, whether they could walk through it. Electric wires sparked from inside, dangerously near the water.
“Please,” the thin woman said, stretching out her hand. “Please. I'm dying. I just need to touch someone. A person. Touch my hand. Please.”
Rosa looked at her. She didn't have time to respond. The door they had come through loudly swung open behind them and big men with gas hoods and guns ran inside the tunnel room. Rosa and Fred were grabbed hard under the arms and hauled fast back out into the hallway where the woman in the pink suit was already crumpled against a wall.
The door was slammed shut hard and latched. A giant crash shook the floor, which now she realized was the tunnel being sealed to the inside and the outside, trapping everyone who was behind the door. The men hauled big hoses attached to a machine on a wheeled dolly up into the two openings above the door fast and they snapped quickly into place. One of the big men said into a phone, “Secure, purge twenty one – twenty four,” and you could hear the sucking sound of a motor running and a vacuum drawing against the big suctioned door, pulling all the oxygen out of the room. They were depressurizing the tunnel and that was what the giant door and the holes and the suction was for and everyone still inside the tunnel room, the woman and those children, were going to die. And that was what would happen upstairs, too, to everyone who lived in the District if the plague got loose, suck out all the air just like this through the same door they had come in from the train. This was the new world, dangling on a string above disaster, with a knife placed to your throat constantly as the price of protection.
She watched the door in horror, helpless. Her ears were still ringing but she could hear the pink suited lady still saying, it's OK, you're OK, I saw you and you didn't touch anyone so you're safe, you're safe, you don't have to leave, thank God, you're safe.