A Sector General Omnibus
By James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2002 Estate of James White
All rights reserved.
Something struck Conway as odd about the latest bunch of trainees as he stood aside to allow them to precede him into the observation gallery of the Hudlar Children's Ward. It was not that among the fourteen of them they comprised five widely different life-forms or that their treatment of him — he was, after all, a Senior Physician attached to the galaxy's largest multienvironment hospital — was condescending to the point of rudeness.
To be accepted for advanced training at Sector Twelve General Hospital a candidate — in addition to possessing a high degree of medical and surgical ability — had to be able to adapt to and accept people and circumstances which, back in their home-planet hospitals, they could barely have imagined. At home an off-planet patient would be a rarity indeed, while at Sector General they would be treating nothing else. Furthermore, many of them would find it difficult to make the transition from highly respected member of the local medical fraternity to mere trainee at Sector General, but they would soon settle in.
His mind was playing tricks on him, Conway decided — probably because he had so much on it at the present time. A rumor was going around about changes in his ambulance ship setup, and he was scheduled for an hour early that afternoon with the Chief Psychologist, always an unsettling prospect.
Conway was also irritated because he seemed to be coming in for more than his fair share of short-term projects and medical odd jobs — such as giving the trainees their initial orientation tour. His special ambulance-ship team had had very few calls in recent months.
"The patients in the ward below are infant Hudlars," Conway explained when the trainees had formed an untidy crescent around and behind him. "They belong to an immensely strong species and, as adults, are extremely resistant to physical injury and disease. So much so that the concept of curative medical treatment has been foreign to them. No medical profession exists on Hudlar, and the high infant mortality rate of the recent past was simply accepted. Their young fall prey to a large number of indigenous pathogens from the moment they are born, and those which do not quickly develop or inherit resistance to them perish. The hospital is trying to develop a wide-spectrum immunization procedure to be carried out during the prenatal stage, but so far with limited success."
He indicated a young Hudlar standing just below them, looking up. "You will already have deduced from this individual's general stance and musculature that the species evolved on a world with very heavy gravity and proportionately high atmospheric pressure, both of which have been reproduced in the ward. You will also observe no beds or rest furniture; patients who can move simply roam about at will. This is because their body tegument is so tough that padded rest areas are unnecessary. Because of the difficulty other species have in telling Hudlars apart, patient ID and case history are impressed magnetically on the metal band attached to the left forelimb. The Hudlars' six limbs can serve as either manipulatory or locomotor appendages.
"While gravity and atmospheric pressure have been duplicated here," Conway went on, "the exact constituents of their atmosphere have not been reproduced. Their home world's air is a thick, semi-liquid soup laden with tiny, airborne food particles which are absorbed and excreted by specialized areas of the skin. We find it more convenient to spray them periodically with a nutrient paint, as two of the armored medical attendants are doing now.
"With the facts now in your possession," he said, turning to regard them, "would anyone like to classify this life-form?"
For a moment there was no verbal response. The Orligian DBDGs moved restively, but the expressions on their humanoid features were concealed by facial hair. The silvery fur of the caterpillarlike Kelgian DBLFs was in constant motion, but the emotions which the movements expressed were readable only by a fellow member of the species or by a being carrying a Kelgian tape in its mind. As for the elephantine Tralthan FGLIs and the diminutive Dewatti EGCLs, their features were too decentralized to be visible in their entirety, while the hard, angular mandibles and deeply recessed eyes of the Melfan ELNTs were completely expressionless.
One of the four Melfan trainees first broke the silence. Its translator hummed briefly, "They belong to physiological classification FROB."
It was difficult to tell Melfans apart at the best of times, since all adult ELNTs possessed similar body mass and the only visible differences were the subtle variations in marking on the upper carapace. To make identification even more difficult, two of the four Melfan trainees seemed to be identical twins. One of these had spoken.
"Correct," Conway said approvingly. "Your name, Doctor?" "Danalta, Senior Physician."
Polite, too, Conway thought. "Very well, Danalta. But you were slow in making the identification even though your colleagues were even slower. All of you must learn to quickly and accurately classify —"
"With respect, Senior Physician," the Melfan broke in, "I did not wish to offer gratuitous display of my medical knowledge, woefully limited as it is at present, until my colleagues had a chance to respond. I have studied all that was available to me regarding your physiological classification system. But I come from a backward world where the level of technology is low and intercultural communication has been limited, particularly where medical data on this hospital was concerned.
"Besides," it concluded, "the Hudlar life-form is distinctive, unique, and could only be FROB."
Conway would not have described Melf as a backward world and neither would any other member of the Galactic Federation, so this Danalta must have come from one of the colonies recently seeded by Melf. To qualify for Sector General with a background like that required determination as well as professional competence. It did not matter that the Melfan was turning out to be an odd combination of polite, self-effacing smart aleck — the operative word was "smart," and the best assistants an overworked Senior could have were those who strived to render their superiors redundant. He decided that he would keep a close watch on Danalta's progress, for purely selfish reasons.
"Since it is possible," Conway said dryly, "that a number of your colleagues are less well-informed on this subject than you, I shall outline very briefly the system of life-form identification which we use here. Your various specialist tutors will take you through it in more detail."
He looked for Danalta, but the trainees had changed their positions and Conway could no longer tell which of the two identical Melfans was which. He went on, "Unless you have already been attached to a multienvironment hospital, you will normally have encountered off-world patients one species at a time, probably on a short-term basis as the result of a ship accident or some emergency, and you would refer to them by their planets of origin. But here — where rapid and accurate identification of incoming patients is vital because all too often they are in no condition to furnish physiological data themselves — we have evolved a four-letter physiological classification system. It works like this.
"The first letter denotes the level of physical evolution reached by the species when it acquired intelligence," he continued. "The second indicates the type and distribution of limbs, sense organs, and body orifices, and the remaining two letters refer to the combination of metabolism and food and air requirements associated with the home planet's gravity and atmospheric pressure, which in turn gives an indication of the physical mass and protective tegument possessed by the being."
Conway smiled, although he knew that a long time would elapse before any of the trainees would be able to recognize that peculiarly Earth-human facial grimace for what it was. "Usually I have to remind some of our extraterrestrial candidates at this point that the initial letter of their classification should not be allowed to give them feelings of inferiority, because the degree of physical evolution is controlled by environmental factors and bears little relation to the level of intelligence ..."
Species with the prefix A, B, or C, he went on to explain, were water-breathers. On most worlds life had originated in the sea, and these beings had developed intelligence without having to leave it. D through F were warm-blooded oxygen-breathers, into which group most of the intelligent races of the Federation fell, and the G and K types were also oxygen breathing, but insectile. The Ls and Ms were light-gravity, winged beings.
Chlorine-breathing life-forms were contained in the O and P groups, and after these came the more exotic, the more highly evolved physically and the downright weird types. Into these categories fell the radiation-eaters, the cold-blooded or crystalline beings, and entities capable of modifying their physical structures at will. However, those beings possessing extrasensory powers sufficiently well developed to make ambulatory or manipulatory appendages unnecessary were given the prefix V regardless of their size or shape.
"There are anomalies in the system," Conway went on, "and these must be blamed on a lack of imagination and foresight by the originators. The AACP life-form, for instance, has a vegetable metabolism. Normally the A prefix denotes a water-breather, there being nothing lower on the evolutionary scale than the piscatorial life-forms, but the AACPs are intelligent vegetables and plant-life came before the fish."
Conway pointed suddenly at a nurse who was spraying nutrient onto a young Hudlar at the other end of the ward, then turned toward Danalta. "Perhaps you would like to classify that life-form, Doctor."
"I am not Danalta," the Melfan Conway was addressing protested. Even though the process of translation tended to filter the emotional overtones from messages, the ELNT sounded displeased.
"My apologies," Conway said, looking around for its twin, in vain. He decided that Danalta, for reasons known only to itself, had hidden behind the group of Tralthan trainees. Before he could redirect the question, one of the Tralthans answered it.
"The being you indicate is encased in a heavy-duty protective suit," the big FGLI said, this deep modulated rumblings of its native speech reinforcing the ponderous and pedantic style of the translated words. "The only part of the being visible to me is the small area behind the visor, and this is indistinct because of reflections from the ward lighting. Since the protective suit is self-propelled, there is no evidence available as to the number and type of the locomotor appendages. But the overall size and shape of the suit together with the positioning of the four mechanical manipulators spaced around the base of the conical head section — assuming that for ergonomic reasons these mechanical extensions approximate the positions of the underlying natural limbs — leads me to state with a fair degree of certainty that the entity in question is a Kelgian of physiological classification DBLF. Glimpses of a gray, furry tegument and what appears to be one of the Kelgian visual sensors revealed, however unclearly, through the small area of the visor, supports this identification."
"Very good, Doctor!" But before Conway could ask the Tralthan its name, the entrance lock of the ward swung open and a large, spherical vehicle mounted on caterpillar treads rolled in. The sphere was encircled equatorially by a variety of remote handling and sensory devices, and prominently displayed on the forward upper surface was the insignia of a Diagnostician. Instead, Conway pointed to the vehicle and said, "Can you classify that one?"
This time one of the Kelgians spoke first.
"Only by inference and deduction, Senior Physician," it said as slow, regular waves rippled along its fur from nose to tail. "Plainly the vehicle is a self-powered pressure vessel which, judging by the external bracing evident on the sphere, is designed to protect the ward patients and medical staff as well as the occupant. The walking limbs, if there are any, are concealed by the pressure envelope, and I would say that the number of external handling and sensory devices is so large that it is probable the being has only a small number of natural manipulators and sensors, and operates the external devices as required. The walls of the pressure vessel are of unknown thickness, so that there is no accurate data available to me regarding the size and physical configuration of the occupant."
The Kelgian paused for a moment and sat back on its rearmost legs, looking like a fat, furry question mark. Silvery ripples continued to move slowly along its back and flanks, while the fur of its three fellow DBLFs twitched and tufted and flattened randomly as if there were a strong wind blowing in the observation gallery.
An air of restlessness, of low-key agitation, seemed to pervade the other members of the group. The Tralthans were each raising and lowering their stumpy, elephantine feet in turn. The continuous clicking and scraping sound was the Melfans tapping their crablike legs against the floor, while the teeth of the Orligians showed whitely in their dark, furry faces. Conway hoped they were smiling.
"I am aware of two life-forms which use a pressure vessel of this kind," the Kelgian went on. "They are utterly dissimilar in environmental requirements and physiology, and both would be considered by the more common oxygen- and chlorine-breathing species to be among the exotic categories. One is a frigid-blooded methane-breather who is most comfortable in an environment at a few degrees above absolute zero, and who evolved on the perpetually dark worlds which have been detached from their original solar systems and drift through the interstellar spaces.
"Physically they are quite small," the Kelgian continued, "averaging one-third of the body mass of a being like myself. But during contact with other species, the highly refrigerated life-support and sensory translation systems which they are forced to wear are large and complex and require frequent power recharge ..."
Three of them! Conway thought. He looked around for the Tralthan who had correctly tagged the suited DBLF, and Danalta, the Melfan trainee who had identified the FROB, to observe their reactions to the very knowledgeable Kelgian — but the group was milling about so much that he could not tell who was who. Certainly he had sensed something unusual about this bunch shortly after taking charge of them at the hospital's staff entry port.
"... The other life-form," the Kelgian was saying, "inhabits a heavy-gravity, watery planet which circles very close to its parent sun. It breathes superheated steam and has a quite interesting metabolism about which I am incompletely informed. It, also, is a small life-form, and the large size of its pressure envelope is necessitated by its having to mount heaters to render the occupant comfortable, and surface insulation and refrigerators to keep the vicinity habitable by other life-forms.
"The environment of the Hudlar ward is warm with a high moisture content," the Kelgian continued, "and some measure of the low internal temperature required by a methane-breathing SNLU would be conducted, no matter how efficient the insulation, to the outer fabric of the vehicle, where condensation would be apparent. Since condensation is not present, the probability is high that the vehicle contains the high-temperature life-form, a member of which species is said to be a Diagnostician at the hospital.
"This identification is the result of deduction, guesswork, and a degree of prior knowledge, Senior Physician," the Kelgian ended, "but I would place the entity in physiological classification TLTU."
Conway looked closely at the slow, regular fur movements of the unusually unemotional and well-informed DBLF, and then at the agitated pelts of its Kelgian colleagues. Speaking slowly, because his mind was moving at top speed and little of it was free for speech, he said, "The answer is correct, no matter how you arrived at it."
He was thinking about the DBLF classification, and in particular about their expressive fur. Because of inadequacies in the speech organs, the Kelgian spoken language lacked emotional expression. Instead the beings' highly mobile fur acted, so far as another Kelgian was concerned, as a perfect but uncontrollable mirror to the speaker's emotional state. As a result the concept of lying was totally alien to them, and the idea of being tactful or diplomatic or even polite was utterly unthinkable. A DBLF invariably said exactly what it meant, and felt, because its fur revealed its feelings from moment to moment and to do otherwise would be sheer stupidity. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Alien Emergencies by James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2002 Estate of James White. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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