The air duct was almost too small for Erica, the walls rubbing against her shoulders, and the ceiling brushing her back as she squirmed down the dusty shaft. Fortunately, she was small for a nine-year-old. Climbing into the air duct when the doctor left the room had been a desperate move, but something was wrong here — she’d sensed it the moment she’d walked into the clinic; the moment she’d seen the scores of children waiting for vaccination.
Erica paused as she came upon another vent cover, peeking through the grating as a grey-haired nurse stuck a needle into a young girl’s arm.
“There you go, dear, all done,” the nurse said. Walking over to a stainless-steel medical cabinet, she placed her thumb against the blue gen-lock. The cabinet opened with a metallic “snick,” revealing a neat row of fluorescent purple bracelets. “Just show this to the guards at the desk,” the nurse said, taking one of the glowing trinkets and fastening it to the girl’s wrist. “They’ll let you back into the lobby to join your parents.”
As the girl left, a fortyish doctor with a glittering ocular implant stepped into the room.
“Dr. Smith,” the nurse said, greeting the man with a warm smile, “how can I help you?”
“Hello, Pricilla,” the doctor said. “By any chance, did you inject the girl in room four and release her?”
Pricilla frowned. “Why, no,” she answered. “I was assigned one and two. I thought four and five were your rooms.”
Combing his fingers through his receding hairline, Dr. Smith sighed. “They are,” he confirmed sourly. “But I seem to have misplaced a patient. I’m certain I locked her inside when I went to get her dose. When I got back, she was gone.”
“One of the nurses must have treated her,” Pricilla hypothesized. “You’ve been so busy since the presidential order; one of them must have decided to lighten your load.”
“You’re probably right,” Dr. Smith admitted. “But how am I supposed to verify her treatment if I didn’t administer the dose?”
Pricilla sniffed. “You worry too much,” she chastised gently. “She would need a release bracelet to get into the lobby, and she wouldn’t have gotten one if she hadn’t been dosed. Stop being such a worrywart and sign the papers. No one’s going to report you.”
Dr. Smith grinned. “You nurses are impossible,” he chuckled. “You have the hearts of angels, but flout procedure like devils.”
“Our future is at stake,” Pricilla said simply. “It’s the mission that counts — not the paperwork.”
“Of course, this epidemic must be stopped,” agreed Dr. Smith. “Come on. Shift change is in five minutes; I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Flirt,” Pricilla accused impishly. “I bet you buy dinner for all the help.
“Why, nurse, how could you say — ”
The door slid closed, cutting off the banter. Erica didn’t mind. She was more interested in the cabinet Pricilla had so conveniently left open than in anything Dr. Smith might say.
Squirming around, Erica placed her feet against the vent and pushed. The grating popped out, bouncing off the floor with a tinny “clang”. Easing herself out of the shaft, she dropped into the room and hurriedly brushed the dust from her clothes. Moving to the cabinet, she paused for a second to study the neat lettering inscribed above the row of bracelets.
Voices sounded in the hall, jolting Erica into motion. Snatching a bracelet, she chewed her lip, anxiously trying to puzzle out the tiny latch as the voices grew louder.
The door slid open, and a petite nurse with electric-blue hair came into the room. “Oh,” the woman exclaimed. “No one told me I had a patient waiting.” Smiling sweetly, she lifted a shiny syringe. “Oh well, are we ready for our vaccination?”
“Nope — all finished already,” exclaimed Erica, holding up her fastened purple bracelet. “I just came back to ask the nice lady if she was giving my brother a shot, too.”
Eyeing the bracelet for a moment, the blue-haired nurse shook her head. “Only girls need the vaccine, honey,” she said. “Now, you should get going. We are very busy today.”
“Okay,” Erica said. “Bye.”
As Erica moved toward the lobby, she wondered if she should ask her parents about the long words inscribed in the cabinet. She decided against it. After all, there was a dictionary program on her home computer; “Population Control Sterilization Initiative” was probably listed.
Timothy Miller writes in Wisconsin.