the ladder - secret hospital (part 2)

An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in every Wednesday for a new installment.

The dull, gunmetal elevator doors, clunky and of dubious stability despite their thickness, slid open to reveal a low-ceilinged lobby better suited to a profitable high-end corporation than a military hospital. Black polished concrete floors, rough cement walls the colour of oatmeal, white plaster ceilings with smoothly recessed fluorescent lighting that cast a diffuse, omnipresent light – the space was modern and minimal, warmed only by the circular receptionist and guard desk crafted from a grainy, amber-coloured wood. On the wall behind the desk, in plain sans-serif letters: US ARMY MEDICAL RESEARCH AND MATERIEL COMMAND – RAD 5. The universal symbol of medicine, the staff with entwined snakes, and the insignia of the USAMRMC, both etched into steel panels backlit with a soft white light, seemingly hovered above the text.

The young uniformed woman behind the desk, an attractive Scandinavian blonde, offered Dr. Poole the first genuinely human smile he’d seen while on base. Next to her, an older crew-cut man whose uniform rank insignia marked him as a Sergeant didn’t smile, but was nonetheless polite in carrying out his duty. Again, the Doctor showed his ID. His name was checked against a list in the computer, photographs were compared, and the card returned with the promise of a welcoming committee and lanyard ID he was told to wear inside the hospital at all times. As he waited, Dr. Poole marveled at the subterranean nature of AFFTC (D3). He couldn’t guess how much of the base was, indeed, below ground but of course it was a sensible countermeasure to the continual parade of orbiting spy satellites. Brilliant, if unconventional, was hiding the USAMRMC Experimental Psychiatric Hospital and its highly-classified patients within the country’s most secretive and ironically famous facility.

Soon enough, a jovial black woman with long straightened hair, a sharp jaw line and equally sharp brown eyes emerged from the frosted glass double-doors to the right of the desk. She wore a mock-wrap tunic the colour of a pinot noir with white piping along with matching scrub pants.

“Welcome to…”

“Area 51?” smiled Poole.

The woman looked at him with an air of put-on offense. “I was going to say welcome to Wonderland.”

“That’s good. We wouldn’t want to get started with a cliché.”

They laughed and she introduced herself as Jazara Jones, registered nurse.

“You’re a lieutenant, I understand?”

“That’s right. My mom was in the army Medical Corps, and before her was my granddad. All officers.” She laughed. “Granddad was good old country doctor.”

Dr. Poole smiled politely and murmured some kind of vaguely-sincere appreciation, then steered the conversation towards the purpose of his visit. As they talked, they navigated a set of stark door-lined corridors that reminded Pool of a favoured film, Brazil. The close quarters of the hallways, the numbered anonymity of the heavy steel doors – these were reminiscent of Gilliam’s set for Information Retrieval, where workers occupied tiny rooms laid out in dehumanizing rows and crammed with plumbing and bare furniture. Perversely, Doctor Poole rather liked it, finding some strange comfort in the geometrical, artificial environment. It was precisely the sort of canvas that human nature, as vague and imprecise a concept as any, could paint itself on. A healthy human nature, that is; one of sound mental states. What a chance for the human to define itself, but in confrontations with the dehumanizing? Of course, the Doctor did not subscribe to this sort of environment for any of his patients. He was of the firm belief that the troubled needed healing natural environments; grass between the toes, trees filled with fruit and birdsong, long winding trails. Though he understood the necessity for keeping his newly acquired patient in the highly secure facility unimaginatively code-named Wonderland, the reports he had read suggested it was entirely the wrong environment for her psychological well-being.

“How long have you been assigned here?”

“Over two years, Doctor. She’s a sweet young woman, despite…everything.”

As they navigated the rough concrete corridors, with the Doctor just as keenly aware of the restless eyes of security as Lt. Jones was indifferent, they reviewed a few basic facts. The patient, designated by the code-name Red Queen, was born Maram Abdul-Azim Zuhdi Hasouna in Gaza sometime in 1991. She was discovered in the rubble of a demolished house by an American Red Cross worker subsequent to an Israeli shelling – retaliation for Hamas-launched rockets – that killed her parents, grandfather, two brothers, and aunt. Given the direct nature of the hit, it was considered a miracle that she had survived at all – by witness accounts, the entire roof collapsed over her cradle, which was found in pieces. Although the aid worker found relatives to care for Maram, it soon became clear she was unusual in many respects. The strangest involved behavioural oddities, such as never crying, and biological oddities such as never getting sick. Most troubling, however, were the reports of developmental problems despite the absence of any neuro-physiological damage. Although capable of speech and fond of reading, she most often remained mute. At times, she refused to eat until forced, but even that presented problems in that she was several orders of magnitude stronger than any child her age could be. The poor girl also suffered from screaming nightmares that, inevitably, she never discussed. Eventually, Maram’s family encountered the aid worker again and begged for some sort of medical intervention. Through a torturous bureaucratic chain, this led to the Israeli, than the US, military removing Maram from both her family and the aid worker’s care. Eventually, her journey culminated in Wonderland.

“Your predecessor remained convinced to the end,” Lt. Jones said.

“PTSD, yes. On the surface that might be a helpful diagnosis. But I like to reserve judgment for myself.”

Wonderland’s corridors were neither labyrinthine nor dizzying but strictly ordered along a simple grid and colour-coded. Dr. Poole was not yet familiar with the hospital’s protocols and did not understand the significance of the colours or the guard placements. Even the medical staff’s uniforms were colour-coded. For his immediate purposes, however, the inner workings of the hospital remained a distant second to his much-anticipated introduction to Maram. As he and Jones finally reached red sector, obviously the most isolated and secured part of the hospital, he noted that euphemistically-named “patient quarters” involved the most sophisticated containment technologies available to the military. And a small but intimidating contingent of heavily armed and armored guards wearing one of those onyx-black super-soldier outfits Dr. Poole often read about in futurist speculations. After their identities were checked yet again, Dr. Pool was cleared to enter Maram’s cell. A single vast door confronted him; massive, impenetrable, solid steel and titanium.

“What sort of threat could a single human being pose that requires…all this? The report…”

Lt. Jones smiled, a strangely sad expression Dr. Poole made note of for later consideration. The locks disengaged with a resonant metallic clang and the door swung open.

1 comment:

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