Doctor Catalina Sanchez woke, momentarily startled and disoriented. Where was she? She had a sheet wrapped around her. It was noisy and her head spun. There were people walking past, although none paid her any attention. Ah, of course. The hospital. She was laying on an unused gurney, near the A&E ward. It was usually noisy here, at this time of night, but especially now.
Four days earlier, a tsunami had hit Sydney. Triggered by yet another earthquake in the South Pacific, the wave had built over a period of hours into the largest tsunami ever to hit Australia. It had smashed into beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong, catching almost everyone completely by surprise. Sand, sea life, cars, boardwalks, houses, street signs, trees, garbage, pets, and people were carried inland by the relentless series of waves. An incredible volume of water swept into Botany Bay and Port Jackson, and up the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers and other waterways that fed into them. Popular tourist attractions were completely inundated in minutes, thousands of screaming sightseers being dragged into the murky, debris-filled water.
Over 40,000 people had died within the first few minutes of the event. Tremors were felt as far north as Cairns, and as far south as Tasmania. Numerous coastal towns, already partially flooded due to elevated sea levels, had suffered catastrophic damage. Sydney, however, was by far the most seriously affected metropolis.
Despite not being Australia’s political capital, Sydney was the nation’s de facto capital of tourism, tech, money, and glamour. One of the most innovative smart cities in the world, its population had swelled to over 10 million by the mid-21st century. Iconic skyscrapers, office towers, hotels, and a plethora of architectural masterpieces, from the sublime to the grotesque, had sprung up across Sydney since the beginning of the millennium.
Now, it was a chaotic mess. Most of the city was without power. Sea water, toxic with petroleum and industrial chemicals that had leached into the water from dockside warehouses, flooded homes and the lower floors of apartment buildings and office buildings. Hundreds of people were missing. The Harbour Tunnel was completely submerged, and city engineers had branded the Harbour Bridge unsafe until further notice due to the countless boats that had smashed into its pylons. All available ferries were at capacity, moving people and equipment from one side of the harbor to the other.
Most of Sydney’s hospitals were close to the water, and had been inundated. Volunteers for the State Emergency Service had worked day and night to clear them of the salty, chemical-laden water and debris, and reconnect power and make structural repairs. In the meantime, most of the injured and sick had taken refuge at the Sydney Cricket Ground and the Sydney Super Dome, which had been jury-rigged into colossal shelters; or at smaller hospitals, such as the Macquarie University Hospital, where Catalina worked as an emergency room doctor.
For four days Catalina and the other doctors, nurses, orderlies, surgeons, specialists, and volunteers slept when and where they could; under desks, on gurneys and massage tables, in wheelchairs, and even in MRI and CT scan machines. They drank strong, bitter, black coffee, and popped stimcaps two at a time to stay alert. They instructed their neural agents to never let them sleep more than fifteen minutes, and to wake them in case of an emergency.
Catalina pulled herself upright on the gurney, groggily forcing her brain to switch from sleep mode to full alertness. She unconsciously pulled a small roll of stimcaps from the front pocket of her scrubs, peeled one off, and dry swallowed it.
“Hey, Catalina, nice work in there,” said Peter Stanton. He was standing by the gurney, dark brown hair ruffled, looking haggard but kindly. Peter was an experienced trauma surgeon in his late fifties, who Catalina had met when she’d started at the hospital as an intern. Earlier that evening Catalina had assisted him in patching up a unfortunate lifeguard who had banged his head on a rock wall.
“Thanks, Peter,” said Catalina, smiling tiredly. “You too.”
“Do you want to grab a quick coffee? I think we’ve both earned a break.”
“Oh, no,” replied Catalina automatically. She gestured around at the muddy, bloody people, huddled in small, miserable groups in corners and on benches, tending to each other as best they could until medical staff had time to see them. “I have to be here.”
“Crazy, right?” he agreed. “But surely you can take ten minutes. It will do you good. You’ll come back refreshed. I mean… a little, anyway.”
Tired, annoyed, she suddenly flared into anger. “Look, Peter! I said ‘no’, alright? Go away! I have work to do!” She pushed herself off the gurney and adjusted her scrubs, stifling a yawn.
“Come on, Catalina, you obviously need a break.” He reached out to touch her arm. “Just five minutes.”
“Leave me alone!” she flared.
“What? I didn’t… I’m sorry.”
She crumpled. Her shoulders fell forward and she started to cry into the crook of her elbow. “I’m sorry, Peter. I’m sorry! I’m just very tired.” She gestured towards a a boy slouching against a wall, mud all over his face and clothes, a blood-stained bandage around one leg where a snapped tree branch had impaled his thigh. “Can you… can you please help me with him?”
“Sure… Of course… But just let me…” He stepped forward and gave her a hug.
Catalina collapsed slightly in his arms and sobbed for just a few seconds. There simply wasn’t time, and showing emotions to her colleagues was not in her nature. She shook it off and looked up at the older doctor, forcing a smile. “Thanks, Peter.” She straightened up. “Now, come on, help me over here. This is Toby. He needs stitches. Hey, Toby, this is Doctor Stanton. We’re going to fix up that leg of yours, ok? Just wait, I’ll grab a wheelchair…”
Three more hours of bedlam passed. Peter, Catalina, and the other doctors and nurses treated a never-ending stream of injuries, not to mention those who had nearly drowned or ingested too much salt water.
Finally, there was a lull in activity and Peter took Catalina gently by the arm. “Come with me for a minute.” He led her into the adjacent staff room, where she sat on a hard plastic chair at a white plastic table littered with dirty coffee cups. She slumped forward, resting her head on her arms while Peter made them two cups of coffee. He sat with her. “How are you holding up? Are you ok?”
“No. Yes. I can’t…” She sighed and sipped her coffee. “Oh wow, this is just awful. Thank you, though.” She attempted a weak smile, took another sip, and grimaced. “I’m just really stressed. Not just because of all this, either. I got a job offer.”
“Really? Ok. Where?”
Catalina chuckled. “I know, right?”
“What did Jenny say?”
Catalina frowned sadly. “She doesn’t know. We broke up. She felt I didn’t have enough time for her, which is fair enough. Plus, with all the people staying at our place since the tsunami, it’s all been a bit crazy.”
“Where have you been sleeping?”
Catalina shrugged, gesturing vaguely at the surrounding environment.
“Oh, no. Catalina, when was the last time you slept?”
“Just before. On the gurney out there.”
“I meant properly.”
“Um. Let me think. Wednesday?”
“Oh, no. Catalina, you are officially off duty for the rest of the evening and tomorrow morning. Here.” He murmured some instructions to his agent. “You can stay at my place. The guest room. Andrea will prepare everything before you get there.”
“Are you sure, Peter?”
Catalina yawned. “Maybe it’s for the best. Thanks, Peter.” She stood.
“So? What do you think? About the job?”
She shrugged. “I can’t do it. The last flight to Mars for this launch window is in one week. If I’m not on it, I’ll have to wait another 26 months for the next one. But it won’t matter. They won’t hold the position for me. They need someone ASAP. I have to give them my final answer tomorrow morning.”
“So? Just go. Tell Macy. She’ll understand.”
Catalina gestured towards the A&E waiting room. “Are you nuts? Have you seen what’s going on here? I can’t leave now!”
“Catalina, we’re talking about Mars! This is the opportunity of a lifetime! They must hold you in very high esteem. Don’t let this mess keep you here. Sydney Hospital will be open again in a couple of days. Probably. Then things will settle down here. Just tell Macy in the morning.”
“Tell me what?”
Peter and Catalina turned to see the gray-haired, rotund Hospital Administrator. She was stern-faced, but both Catalina and Peter knew that the former matron’s gruff exterior was nothing more than a mask for a big heart and caring, empathic nature.
“Hey, Macy.” Catalina sat back down. “Sorry, I’m super tired, but I guess we can do this now. Will you join us for a minute?”
The Hospital Administrator pulled another white chair out from the table and sat. She swept aside several cups and folded her hands in front of her. “What is it? Please be quick. I am exceptionally busy, as you may be aware.”
“I was offered a job,” said Catalina. “On Mars, at the new hospital in Arcadia. The rapid development of the industrial zone has resulted in a large number of incidents, and they just don’t have the people. They need an ER doctor. Like, yesterday.”
“Well,” said Macy. “Do you want to go? Good money, I bet. And the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Catalina smiled. “That’s what Peter said. Yes, of course I want to go. But I don’t want to leave you with this mess, and the flight leaves in a week!”
“Can you work here until then?”
“Of course,” said Catalina.
“Except I told her to take the night off. And tomorrow morning,” said Peter. “She hasn’t slept properly for days.”
Macy nodded firmly. “Right. Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said, placing her hands flat on the table. “Tonight you’re going to go home and rest. But I want you back here by 10 a.m. tomorrow, and I want your best effort until you go. Then pack your stuff and get on that flight. Okay?” Macy stood, the chair scraping noisily along the tiled floor as the pushed it back. “Tomorrow morning, message Patricia and tell her you’re on your way.” She sniffed. “You may be good, Sanchez, but you’re not that good that we can’t make do without you.”
“Wait,” said Catalina, just before Macy could exit the staff room. “Sorry, Macy. Did Patricia Gladmore contact you?”
Macy smiled, her mask dropping. “Of course she did. Last week. She wanted to make sure my nose wouldn’t get too far out of joint if she stole you away. I told her the truth.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we loved having you here, and that you’d be terribly missed, but I for one wasn’t going to interfere in your life, and that if you want to go to Mars, I’d support you wholeheartedly. I’ve been waiting for you to come and talk to me about it!” She shrugged. “I guess we’ve been pretty busy since then. Good luck on Mars, Sanchez! And if you don’t like it, come back. You’ll still have a job here, if you want.” The grey-haired woman turned and stumped out of the staff room.