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The shuttle plane from the port of Philadelphia to Hospital Seattle had already gone when Dal Timgar arrived at the loading platform, even though he had taken great pains to be at least thirty minutes early for the boarding.
"You'll just have to wait for the next one," the clerk at the dispatcher's desk told him unsympathetically. "There's nothing else you can do."
"But I can't wait," Dal said. "I have to be in Hospital Seattle by morning." He pulled out the flight schedule and held it under the clerk's nose. "Look there! The shuttle wasn't supposed to leave for another forty-five minutes!"
The clerk blinked at the schedule, and shrugged. "The seats were full, so it left," he said. "Graduation time, you know. Everybody has to be somewhere else, right away. The next shuttle goes in three hours."
"But I had a reservation on this one," Dal insisted.
"Don't be silly," the clerk said sharply. "Only graduates can get reservations this time of year--" He broke off to stare at Dal Timgar, a puzzled frown on his face. "Let me see that reservation."
Dal fumbled in his pants pocket for the yellow reservation slip. He was wishing now that he'd kept his mouth shut. He was acutely conscious of the clerk's suspicious stare, and suddenly he felt extremely awkward. The Earth-cut trousers had never really fit Dal very well; his legs were too long and spindly, and his hips too narrow to hold the pants up properly. The tailor in the Philadelphia shop had tried three times to make a jacket fit across Dal's narrow shoulders, and finally had given up in despair. Now, as he handed the reservation slip across the counter, Dal saw the clerkstaring at the fine gray fur that coated the back of his hand and arm. "Here it is," he said angrily. "See for yourself."
The clerk looked at the slip and handed it back indifferently. "It's a valid reservation, all right, but there won't be another shuttle to Hospital Seattle for three hours," he said, "unless you have a priority card, of course."
"No, I'm afraid I don't," Dal said. It was a ridiculous suggestion, and the clerk knew it. Only physicians in the Black Service of Pathology and a few Four-star Surgeons had the power to commandeer public aircraft whenever they wished. "Can I get on the next shuttle?"
"You can try," the clerk said, "but you'd better be ready when they start loading. You can wait up on the ramp if you want to."
Dal turned and started across the main concourse of the great airport. He felt a stir of motion at his side, and looked down at the small pink fuzz-ball sitting in the crook of his arm. "Looks like we're out of luck, pal," he said gloomily. "If we don't get on the next plane, we'll miss the hearing altogether. Not that it's going to do us much good to be there anyway."
The little pink fuzz-ball on his arm opened a pair of black shoe-button eyes and blinked up at him, and Dal absently stroked the tiny creature with a finger. The fuzz-ball quivered happily and clung closer to Dal's side as he started up the long ramp to the observation platform. Automatic doors swung open as he reached the top, and Dal shivered in the damp night air. He could feel the gray fur that coated his back and neck rising to protect him from the coldness and dampness that his body was never intended by nature to endure.
Below him the bright lights of the landing fields and terminal buildings of the port of Philadelphia spread out in panorama, and he thought with a sudden pang of the great space-port in his native city, so very different from this one and so unthinkably far away. The field below was teeming with activity, alive with men and vehicles. Moments before, one of Earth's great hospital ships had landed, returning from a cruise deep into the heart of the galaxy, bringing in the gravely ill from a dozen star systems for care in one of Earth's hospitals. Dal watched as the long line of stretchers poured from the ship's hold with white-clad orderlies in nervous attendance. Some of the stretchers were encased in special atmosphere tanks; a siren wailed across the field as an emergency truck raced up with fresh gas bottles for a chlorine-breather from the Betelgeuse system, and a derrick crew spent fifteen minutes lifting down the special liquid ammonia tank housing a native of Aldebaran's massive sixteenth planet.
All about the field were physicians supervising the process of disembarcation, resplendent in the colors that signified their medical specialties. At the foot of the landing crane a Three-star Internist in the green cape of the Medical Service--obviously the commander of the ship--was talking with the welcoming dignitaries of Hospital Earth. Half a dozen doctors in the Blue Service of Diagnosis were checking new lab supplies ready to be loaded aboard. Three young Star Surgeons swung by just below Dal with their bright scarlet capes fluttering in the breeze, headed for customs and their first Earthside liberty in months. Dal watched them go by, and felt the sick, bitter feeling in the pit of his stomach that he had felt so often in recent months.
He had dreamed, once, of wearing the scarlet cape of the Red Service of Surgery too, with the silver star of the Star Surgeon on his collar. That had been a long time ago, over eight Earth years ago; the dream had faded slowly, but now the last vestige of hope was almost gone. He thought of the long years of intensive training he had just completed in the medical school of Hospital Philadelphia, the long nights of studying for exams, the long days spent in the laboratories and clinics in order to become a physician of Hospital Earth, and a wave of bitterness swept through his mind.
A dream, he thought hopelessly, a foolish idea and nothing more. They knew before I started that they would never let me finish. They had no intention of doing so, it just amused them to watch me beat my head on a stone wall for these eight years. But then he shook his head and felt a little ashamed of the thought. It wasn't quite true, and he knew it. He had known that it was a gamble from the very first. Black Doctor Arnquist had warned him the day he received his notice of admission to the medical school. "I can promise you nothing," the old man had said, "except a slender chance. There are those who will fight to the very end to prevent you from succeeding, and when it's all over, you may not win. But if you are willing to take that risk, at least you have a chance."
Dal had accepted the risk with his eyes wide open. He had done the best he could do, and now he had lost. True, he had not received the final, irrevocable word that he had been expelled from the medical service of Hospital Earth, but he was certain now that it was waiting for him when he arrived at Hospital Seattle the following morning.
The loading ramp was beginning to fill up, and Dal saw half a dozen of his classmates from the medical school burst through the door from the station below, shifting their day packs from their shoulders and chattering among themselves. Several of them saw him, standing by himself against the guard rail. One or two nodded coolly and turned away; the others just ignored him. Nobody greeted him, nor even smiled. Dal turned away and stared down once again at the busy activity on the field below.
"Why so gloomy, friend?" a voice behind him said. "You look as though the ship left without you."
Dal looked up at the tall, dark-haired young man, towering at his side, and smiled ruefully. "Hello, Tiger! As a matter of fact, it did leave. I'm waiting for the next one."
"Where to?" Frank Martin frowned down at Dal. Known as "Tiger" to everyone but the professors, the young man's nickname fit him well. He was big, even for an Earthman, and his massive shoulders and stubborn jaw only served to emphasize his bigness. Like the other recent graduates on the platform, he was wearing the colored cuff and collar of the probationary physician, in the bright green of the Green Service of Medicine. He reached out a huge hand and gently rubbed the pink fuzz-ball sitting on Dal's arm. "What's the trouble, Dal? Even Fuzzy looks worried. Where's your cuff and collar?"
"I didn't get any cuff and collar," Dal said.
"Didn't you get an assignment?" Tiger stared at him. "Or are you just taking a leave first?"
Dal shook his head. "A permanent leave, I guess," he said bitterly. "There's not going to be any assignment for me. Let's face it, Tiger. I'm washed out."
"Oh, now look here--"
"I mean it. I've been booted, and that's all there is to it."
"But you've been in the top ten in the class right through!" Tiger protested. "You know you passed your finals. What is this, anyway?"
Dal reached into his jacket and handed Tiger a blue paper envelope. "I should have expected it from the first. They sent me this instead of my cuff and collar."
Tiger opened the envelope. "From Doctor Tanner," he grunted. "The Black Plague himself. But what is it?"
"Read it," Dal said.
"'You are hereby directed to appear before the medical training council in the council chambers in Hospital Seattle at 10:00 A.M., Friday, June 24, 2375, in order that your application for assignment to a General Practice Patrol ship may be reviewed. Insignia will not be worn. Signed, Hugo Tanner, Physician, Black Service of Pathology.'" Tiger blinked at the notice and handed it back to Dal. "I don't get it," he said finally. "You applied, you're as qualified as any of us--"
"Except in one way," Dal said, "and that's the way that counts. They don't want me, Tiger. They have never wanted me. They only let me go through school because Black Doctor Arnquist made an issue of it, and they didn't quite dare to veto him. But they never intended to let me finish, not for a minute."
For a moment the two were silent, staring down at the busy landing procedures below. A warning light was flickering across the field, signaling the landing of an incoming shuttle ship, and the supply cars broke from their positions in center of the field and fled like beetles for the security of the garages. A loudspeaker blared, announcing the incoming craft. Dal Timgar turned, lifting Fuzzy gently from his arm into a side jacket pocket and shouldering his day pack. "I guess this is my flight, Tiger. I'd better get in line."
Tiger Martin gripped Dal's slender four-fingered hand tightly. "Look," he said intensely, "this is some sort of mistake that the training council will straighten out. I'm sure of it. Lots of guys have their applications reviewed. It happens all the time, but they still get their assignments."
"Do you know of any others in this class? Or the last class?"
"Maybe not," Tiger said. "But if they were washing you out, why would the council be reviewing it? Somebody must be fighting for you."
"But Black Doctor Tanner is on the council," Dal said.
"He's not the only one on the council. It's going to work out. You'll see."
"I hope so," Dal said without conviction. He started for the loading line, then turned. "But where are you going to be? What ship?"
Tiger hesitated. "Not assigned yet. I'm taking a leave. But you'll be hearing from me."
The loading call blared from the loudspeaker. The tall Earthman seemed about to say something more, but Dal turned away and headed across toward the line for the shuttle plane. Ten minutes later, he was aloft as the tiny plane speared up through the black night sky and turned its needle nose toward the west.
He tried to sleep, but couldn't. The shuttle trip from the Port of Philadelphia to Hospital Seattle was almost two hours long because of passenger stops at Hospital Cleveland, Eisenhower City, New Chicago, and Hospital Billings. In spite of the help of the pneumatic seats and a sleep-cap, Dal could not even doze. It was one of the perfect clear nights that often occurred in midsummer now that weather control could modify Earth's air currents so well; the stars glittered against the black velvet backdrop above, and the North American continent was free of clouds. Dal stared down at the patchwork of lights that flickered up at him from the ground below.
Passing below him were some of the great cities, the hospitals, the research and training centers, the residential zones and supply centers of Hospital Earth, medical center to the powerful Galactic Confederation, physician in charge of the health of a thousand intelligent races on a thousand planets of a thousand distant star systems. Here, he knew, was the ivory tower of galactic medicine, the hub from which the medical care of the confederation arose. From the huge hospitals, research centers, and medical schools here, the physicians of Hospital Earth went out to all corners of the galaxy. In the permanent outpost clinics, in the gigantic hospital ships that served great sectors of the galaxy, and in the General Practice Patrol ships that roved from star system to star system, they answered the calls for medical assistance from a multitude of planets and races, wherever and whenever they were needed.