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A Sector General Omnibus
By James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Estate of James White
All rights reserved.
The ruler of the ship sat beside Cha Thrat at the recreation deck's viewscreen while the fuzzy blob of light that was the space hospital grew into a gigantic, complex structure ablaze with every color and intensity of light that her eyes could detect. She had strong feelings of awe, wonder, excitement, and great embarrassment.
Ruler Chiang, she had learned, carried the rank of major in the Monitor Corps Extraterrestrial Communications and Cultural Contact division. But the ruler seriously confused her at times by behaving like a warrior. Now it was sitting beside her because it felt some strange, Earth-human obligation to do so. It had wanted to pay her the compliment of allowing her to watch the approach to the hospital from its control deck, but as she was physiologically unable to enter that small and already crowded compartment, it had felt obliged to desert its post and sit with her here.
The compliment was a completely unnecessary piece of time-wasting nonsense, considering wide disparity in the social and professional levels of the people involved, but Chiang seemed to derive some pleasure from the foolishness and it had, after all, been a patient of hers.
The muted conversation in Control was being relayed with the image on the repeater screen and, while Cha Thrat's translator gave her the equivalent of every word, the particular technical jargon that the ship's warriors were using made the total meaning of what they were saying unclear. But suddenly there was a new, amplified voice whose words were simple and unambiguous, accompanied by a picture of the disgustingly hairy being who was speaking them.
"Sector General Reception," it said briskly. "Identify yourself, please. Patient, visitor, or staff; degree of urgency; and physiological classification, if known. If uncertain, please make full visual contact and we will classify."
"Monitor Corps courier vessel Thromasaggar," a voice from Control responded. "Short-stay docking facilities to unload patient and staff member. Crew and patient classification Earth-human DBDG. Patient is ambulatory, convalescent, treatment nonurgent. Staff member is classification DCNF and is also a warm-blooded oxygen-breather with no special temperature, gravity, or pressure requirements."
"Wait," the obnoxious creature said, and once again the image of the hospital filled the screen. A definite improvement, she thought.
"What is that thing?" she asked the ruler. "It looks like a ... a scroggila. You know, one of our rodents."
"I've seen pictures of them," the ruler said, and made the unpleasant barking sound that denoted amusement with these people. "It is a Nidian DBDG, about half the body mass of an Earth-human with a very similar metabolism. Its species is highly advanced technologically and culturally, so it only looks like an outsize rodent. You'll learn to work with much less beautiful beings in that place —"
It broke off as the image of the Nidian returned.
"Follow the blue-yellow-blue direction beacons," the receptionist said. "Debark patient and staff member at Lock One Zero Four, then proceed to Dock Eighteen via the blue-blue-white beacons. Major Chiang and the Sommaradvan healer are expected and will be met."
By what? she wondered.
The ruler had given her a great deal of helpful advice and information about Sector Twelve General Hospital, most of which she did not believe. And when they entered the lock antechamber a short time later, she could not believe that the smooth, waist-high hemisphere of green jelly occupying the deck between the two waiting Earth-humans was a person.
Ruler Chiang said, "This is Lieutenant Braithwaite of the Chief Psychologist's Office, and Maintenance Officer Timmins, who is responsible for preparing your accommodation, and Doctor Danalta, who is attached to the ambulance ship, Rhabwar ..."
Except for minor differences in the insignia on their uniforms, she could not tell the two Earth-humans apart. The large blob of green stuff on the floor, she guessed, was some kind of practical joke, or perhaps part of an initiation ritual for newcomers to the hospital. For the time being she decided not to react.
"... And this is Cha Thrat," it went on, "the new healer from Sommaradva, who is joining the staff."
Both Earth-humans moved their right hands up to waist level, then lowered them as the ruler shook its head. Cha Thrat had already told Chiang that grasping a strange person's appendage was considered quite vulgar where she came from, and it would have been much more considerate of them if they had given her some indication of their status. Ruler Chiang had spoken to them as equals, but then it had often done that while addressing subordinates on the ship. It was very careless of the ruler and most confusing for her.
"Timmins will see that your personal effects are moved to your quarters," the ruler went on. "I don't know what Danalta and Braithwaite have in mind for us."
"Nothing too onerous," Braithwaite said as the other Earth-human was leaving. "On hospital time it is the middle of the day, and the healer's accommodation will not be ready until early evening. In midafternoon you are due for a physical, Major. Cha Thrat is expected to be present, no doubt to receive the compliments of our medics for what was obviously a very tidy piece of, for a Sommaradvan, other-species surgery."
It looked in her direction and for some reason inclined its head forward from the neck, then went on. "Immediately following the examination both of you have appointments in Psychology: Cha Thrat for an orientation talk with O'Mara, and you for an investigation, purely a formality in your case, to ensure that there is no non-physical trauma resulting from your recent injuries. But until then ... Have you eaten recently?"
"No," said Chiang, "and I would welcome a change from ship food."
The other Earth-human made soft barking sounds and said, "You haven't tasted a hospital meal yet. But we try hard not to poison our visitors ..."
It broke off to apologize and explain hastily that it was making an in-hospital joke, that the food was quite palatable, and that it had been given full instructions regarding Cha Thrat's dietary requirements.
But she was only vaguely aware of what it was saying because her attention was on the hemisphere of green stuff, the surface of which had begun to ripple and pucker and grow pseudopods. It wobbled sluggishly and heaved itself upright until it was as tall as she was, its skin coloration became mottled, the wet gleam of what could only be eyes appeared, the number of short, crudely formed appendages increased until it looked like something a young child on Sommaradva might make from modeling clay. She felt sudden nausea, but her feelings of curiosity and wonder were even stronger as the body firmed out, became more finely structured, and the features appeared. Then the clothing and equipment pouch grew into place, and there was standing before her the figure of another female Sommaradvan identical in every detail to herself.
"If our Earth-human friends intend subjecting you to the environment of a multispecies dining hall within minutes of your arrival," it said in a voice that was not, thankfully, hers, "I must counteract their lack of consideration by providing you with something familiar, and friendly, to whom you can relate. It is the least I can do for a new member of the staff."
"Doctor Danalta," Braithwaite said, barking again, "is not as altruistic as it would have you think, Cha Thrat. Due to the incredibly savage environment of its planet of origin, the species evolved protective mimicry of a very high order. There are few warm-blooded oxygen-breathing life-forms in Sector General that it cannot accurately reproduce within a few minutes, as you've seen. But we suspect that any new, intelligent life-form to arrive at the hospital, be it patient, visitor, or staff, is regarded by Danalta as a challenge to its powers of physical mimicry."
"Nevertheless," she said, "I am impressed."
She stared eye to eye at her utterly alien but identical twin, thinking that the being had displayed concern for her present mental well-being by using its incredible talent to make her feel more comfortable. It was the action of a healer of rulers, and it might even be a ruler itself. Instinctively she made the gesture of respect to superiors, then belatedly realized that neither the Earth-humans nor her Danalta-copy would recognize it for what it was.
"Why, thank you, Cha Thrat," said Danalta, returning the gesture. "With protective mimicry there is an associated empathic faculty. While I don't know what the limb gesture means exactly, I could feel that I was being complimented."
Danalta, she had no doubt, was also aware of her embarrassment, but as they followed the two Earth-humans from the compartment the shape-changer did not speak of it.
The corridor outside was thronged with a menagerie of creatures, a few of whom resembled, in shape if not in size, nonintelligent species found on Sommaradva. She tried not to flinch as one of the small, red-furred bipeds of the species she had seen in charge of Reception brushed past, and she felt acutely anxious when enormous, six-limbed, multi-tentacled monsters of many times her body mass bore down on her. But not all of the creatures were frightening, or even ugly. A large crustacean with a beautifully marked carapace and hard exoskeletal limbs clicked past, its pincers opening and closing slowly as it talked to a truly lovely being who had at least thirty short, stubby legs and an overall coat of rippling, silvery fur. There were others she could not see clearly because of their protective envelopes and, in the case of the occupant of a mobile pressure vessel from which steam was escaping, she had no idea what weird or wonderful shape the vehicle was concealing.
The cacophony of hooting, chirping, gobbling, and moaning conversation could not be described, because it was totally unlike anything she had previously experienced.
"There is a much shorter route to the dining hall," Danalta said as a spiney, membraneous being who looked like some kind of dark, oily vegetable shuffled past, its physical details clouded by the thick yellow fog inside its transparent suit. "But it would mean a trip through the water-filled Chalder wards, and your protective envelopes won't be ready for another six, maybe seven days. How do you feel, and what do you think of the place so far?"
It was disconcerting and embarrassing to have Danalta, who could be nothing less than a wizard-healer of rulers, ask such questions of a mere warrior-surgeon. But the questions had been asked, and answers were expected. If the being wished to practice its art in the middle of a crowded corridor, it was certainly not her place to criticize.
Promptly she replied, "I feel confused, frightened, repelled, curious, and unsure of my ability to adapt. My confusion is such that I am unable to be more specific. I'm beginning to feel that the two Earth-humans walking in front of us, member of a species that a short time ago I would have considered totally alien, have an almost welcome normality about them. And I feel that you, because you have made yourself the most familiar and reassuring entity in the hospital, are by your very nature the most alien of all. I haven't had enough time, nor have I sufficient direct experience, to form any useful impressions or opinions about the hospital, but it may well be that the empathic faculty you possess has already made you aware of my feelings.
"Is the environment of the dining hall," she added worriedly, "much worse than this?"
Danalta did not reply at once, and the two Earth-humans had been silent for some time. The one called Braithwaite had fallen slightly behind the other, and its head was turned to one side so that the fleshy protuberance that was one of its auricular organs would be better able to pick up her words. It seemed that her feelings were of interest not only to the shape-changer. When Danalta did speak, its words resembled a lecture rather than a simple reply to her question.
"A low level of empathy is common in most intelligent life-forms," it said, "but only in one species, the natives of Cinruss, is there a perfect empathic faculty. You will meet one of them soon because it, too, is curious about newly discovered life-forms and will want to seek you out at the first opportunity. You can then compare my limited empathic faculty with Prilicla's.
"My own limited faculty," it went on, "is based on the observation of body movements, tensions, changes in skin coloration, and so on, rather than the direct reception of the subject's emotional radiation. As a healer you, too, must have a degree of empathy with your patients, and on many occasions are able to sense their condition, or changes in their condition, without direct physical investigation. But no matter how refined the faculty may be, your thoughts are still private, exclusively your own property, and it is simply your stronger feelings that I detect —"
"The dining hall," Braithwaite said suddenly. It turned into the wide, doorless entrance, narrowly avoided colliding with a Nidian and two of the silver-furred beings who were leaving, and barked softly as they made derogatory remarks about its clumsiness. It pointed. "Over there, an empty table!"
For a moment Cha Thrat could not move a single limb as she stared across the vast expanse of highly polished floor with its regimented islands of eating benches and seats, grouped by size and shape to accommodate the incredible variety of beings using them. It was much, much worse than her experience of the corridors, where she had encountered the creatures two or three at a time. Here there were hundreds of them, grouped together into species or with several different life-forms occupying the same table.
There were beings who were terrifying in their obvious physical strength and range of natural weapons; others who were frightening, horrifying, and repugnant in the color and slime-sheen and nauseous growths covering their teguments; and many of them were the phantasms of Sommaradvan nightmare given frightful solidity. At a few of the tables were entities whose body and limb configurations were so utterly ridiculous that she had trouble believing her eyes.
"This way," said Danalta, who had been waiting for Cha Thrat's limbs to stop trembling. It led the way to the table claimed by Braithwaite, and she noticed that the furiture suited neither the physiologies of the Earth-humans nor the trio of exoskeletal crustaceans who were vacating it.
She wondered if she would ever be able to adapt to the ways of these chronically disorganized and untidy beings. At least on Sommaradva the people knew their place.
"The mechanism for food selection and delivery is similar to that on the ship," Braithwaite said as she lowered herself carefully into the dreadfully uncomfortable chair and her weight made the menu display light up. "You tap in your physiological classification and it will list the food available. Until the catering computer has been programmed with details of the combinations, consistencies, and platter displays you favor, it is likely to come in unsightly but nutritious lumps. You'll soon get used to the system, but in the meantime I'll order for you."
"Thank you," she said.
When it arrived the biggest lump looked like an uneven block of tasam. But it smelled like roasted cretsi, had the consistency of roasted cretsi, and, she found after trying a small corner, it tasted like roasted cretsi. She realized suddenly that she was hungry.
"It sometimes happens," Braithwaite continued, "that the meals of your fellow diners, or even the diners themselves, are visually distressing to the point where it is affecting your appetite. You may keep one eye on your platter and close all the others; we won't be offended."
She did as it suggested, but kept one eye slightly open so that she could see Braithwaite, who was still watching her intently while pretending, for some odd, Earth-human reason, not to do so. While she ate, her mind went back to the incident with the ship ruler on Sommaradva, the voyage, and her reception here, and she realized that she was becoming suspicious, and irritated.
"On the subject of your stronger feelings," Danalta said, seemingly intent upon resuming the lecture it had broken off at the entrance, "do you have any strong feelings against discussing personal or professional matters in the presence of strangers?"
The ship ruler, Chiang, paused with what looked like a piece of what had once been a living creature halfway to its eating orifice. It said, "On Sommaradva they prefer to hear directly what other people think of them. And conversely, the presence of interested witnesses during a discussion of their affairs is often considered beneficial."
Excerpted from General Practice by James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2003 Estate of James White. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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