Sector General: A massive deep-space hospital station on the Galactic Rim, where human and alien medicine meet. Its 384 levels and thousands of staff members are supposedly able to meet the needs of any conceivable alien patient--though that capacity is always being strained as more (and stranger) alien races turn up to join the galactic community. Sentient viruses, interspecies romances, undreamed-of institutional catering problems--it all lands on Sector General's doorstep. And the only thing weirder than a hitherto unknown alien species is having a member of that species turn up in your Emergency Room.
The first of two omnibus volumes reprints the works that began the Sector General series, which were previously published as Hospital Station (1962), Star Surgeon (1963), and Major Operation (1971).
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
James White lived in Northern Ireland. He was a popular writer of science fiction for over forty years. He died in 1999.
James White lived in Northern Ireland. He was a popular writer of science fiction for over forty years. His books include the Sector General series, starting with Hospital Station, Star Surgeon, and Major Operation, which are collected in the omnibus Beginning Operations. He died in 1999.
Brian Stableford lives in Reading, England.
Read an Excerpt
The alien occupying ÒMara's sleeping compartment weighed roughly half a ton, possessed six short, thick appendages which served both as arms or legs and had a hide like a flexible armor plate. Coming as it did from Hudlar, a four-G world with an atmospheric pressure nearly seven times Earth normal, such ruggedness of physique was to be expected. But despite its enormous strength the being was helpless, O'Mara knew, because it was barely six months old, it had just seen its parents die in a construction accident, and its brain was sufficiently well developed for the sight to have frightened it badly.
"I've b-b-brought the kid," said Waring, one of the section's tractor-beam operators. He hated O'Mara, and with good reason, but he was trying not to gloat. "C-C-Caxton sent me. He says your leg makes you unfit for normal duty, so you can look after the young one until somebody arrives from its home planet. He's on his way over n-now ..."
Waring trailed off. He began checking the seals of his spacesuit, obviously in a hurry to get out before O'Mara could mention the accident. "I brought some of its food with me," he ended quickly. "It's in the airlock."
ÒMara nodded without speaking. He was a young man cursed with the kind of physique which ensured him winning every fight he had ever been in, and there had been a great many of them recently, and a face which was as square, heavy and roughly formed as was his over-muscled body. He knew that if he allowed himself to show how much that accident had affected him, Waring would think that he was simply putting on an act. Men who were put together as he was, O'Mara had long ago discovered, were not supposed to have any of the softer emotions.
Immediately Waring departed he went to the airlock for the glorified paint-sprayer with which Hudlarians away from their home planet were fed. While checking the gadget and its spare food tanks he tried to go over the story he would have to tell Caxton when the section chief arrived. Staring moodily through the airlock port at the bits and pieces of the gigantic jigsaw puzzle spread across fifty cubic miles of space outside, he tried to think. But his mind kept ducking away from the accident and slipping instead into generalities and events which were in the far past or future.
The vast structure which was slowly taking shape in Galactic Sector Twelve, midway between the rim of the parent galaxy and the densely populated systems of the Greater Magellanic Cloud, was to be a hospital — a hospital to end all hospitals. Hundreds of different environments would be accurately reproduced here, any extreme of heat, cold, pressure, gravity, radiation or atmosphere necessary for the patients and staff it would contain. Such a tremendous and complex structure was far beyond the resources of any one planet, so that hundreds of worlds had each fabricated sections of it and transported them to the assembly point.
But fitting the jigsaw together was no easy job.
Each of the worlds concerned had their copies of the master plan. But errors occurred despite this — probably through the plan having to be translated into so many different languages and systems of measurement. Sections which should have fitted snugly together very often had to be modified to make them join properly, and this necessitated moving the sections together and apart several times with massed tractor and pressor beams. This was very tricky work for the beam operators, because while the weight of the sections out in space was nil, their mass and inertia was tremendous.
And anyone unlucky enough to be caught between the joining faces of two sections in the process of being fitted became, no matter how tough a life-form they happened to be, an almost perfect representation of a two-dimensional body.
The beings who had died belonged to a tough species, physiological classification FROB to be exact. Adult Hudlarians weighed in the region of two Earth tons, possessed an incredibly hard but flexible tegument which, as well as protecting them from their own native and external pressures, allowed them to live and work comfortably in any atmosphere of lesser pressure down to and including the vacuum of space. In addition they had the highest radiation tolerance level known, which made them particularly invaluable during power pile assembly.
The loss of two such valuable beings from his section would, in any case, have made Caxton mad, quite apart from other considerations. O'Mara sighed heavily, decided that his nervous system demanded a more positive release than that, and swore. Then he picked up the feeder and returned to the bedroom.
Normally the Hudlarians absorbed food directly through their skin from the thick, soupy atmosphere of their planet, but on any other world or in space a concentrated food compound had to be sprayed onto the absorbent hides at certain intervals. The young e-t was showing large bare patches and in other places the previous food coating had worn very thin. Definitely, thought O'Mara, the infant was due for another feed. He moved as close as seemed safe and began to spray carefully.
The process of being painted with food seemed to be a pleasant one for the young FROB. It ceased to cower in the corner and began blundering excitedly about the small bedroom. For O'Mara it became a matter of trying to hit a rapidly moving object while practicing violent evasive maneuvers himself, which set his injured leg throbbing more painfully than ever. His furniture suffered, too.
Practically the whole interior surface of his sleeping compartment was covered with the sticky, sharp-smelling food compound, and also the exterior of the now-quiescent young alien, when Caxton arrived.
"What's going on?" said the Section Chief.
Space construction men as a class were simple, uncomplicated personalities whose reactions were easily predictable. Caxton was the type who always asked what was going on even when, as now, he knew — and especially when such unnecessary questions were meant simply to needle somebody. In the proper circumstances the section chief was probably a quite likeable individual, O'Mara thought, but between Caxton and himself those circumstances had yet to come about.
O'Mara answered the question without showing the anger he felt, and ended, "... After this I think I'll keep the kid in space, and feed it there ..."
"You will not!" Caxton snapped. "You'll keep it here with you, all the time. But more about that later. At the moment I want to know about the accident. Your side of it, that is."
His expression said that he was prepared to listen, but that he already doubted every word that O'Mara would say in advance.
"Before you go any further," Caxton broke in after O'Mara had completed two sentences, "you know that this project is under Monitor Corps jurisdiction. Usually the Monitors let us settle any trouble that crops up in our own way, but this case involves extra-terrestrials and they'll have to be brought in on it. There'll be an investigation." He tapped the small, flat box hanging from his chest. "It's only fair to warn you that I'm taping everything you say."
O'Mara nodded and began giving his account of the accident in a low monotone. It was a very weak story, he knew, and stressing any particular incident so as to point it up in his favor would make it sound even more artificial. Several times Caxton opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Finally he said:
"But did anyone see you doing these things? Or even see the two e-ts moving about in the danger area while the warning lights were burning? You have a neat little story to explain this madness on their part — which, incidentally, makes you quite a hero — but it could be that you switched on the lights after the accident, that it was your negligence regarding the lights which caused it, and that all this about the straying youngster is a pack of lies designed to get you out of a very serious charge — "
"Waring saw me," O'Mara cut in.
Caxton stared at him intently, his expression changing from suppressed anger to one of utter disgust and scorn. Despite himself O'Mara felt his face heating up.
"Waring eh?" said the section chief tonelessly. "A nice touch, that. You know, and we all know, that you have been riding Waring constantly, needling him and playing on his disability to such an extent that he must hate you like poison. Even if he did see you, the court would expect him to keep quiet about it. And if he did not see you, they would think that he had and was keeping quiet about it anyway. O'Mara, you make me sick."
Caxton wheeled and stamped toward the airlock. With one foot through the inner seal he turned again.
"You're nothing but a troublemaker, O'Mara," he said angrily, "a surly, quarrelsome lump of bone and muscle with just enough skill to make you worth keeping. You may think that it was technical ability which got you these quarters on your own. It wasn't, you're good but not that good! The truth is that nobody else in my section would share accommodation with you ..."
The section chief's hand moved to the cut-off switch on his recorder. His voice, as he ended, became a quiet, deadly thing.
"... And O'Mara if you let any harm come to that youngster, if anything happens to it at all, the Monitors won't even get the chance to try you."
The implications behind those final words were clear, ÒMara thought angrily as the section chief left; he was sentenced to live with this organic half-ton tank for a period that would feel like eternity no matter how short it was. Everybody knew that exposing Hudlarians to space was like putting a dog out for the night — there were no harmful effects at all. But what some people knew and what they felt were two vastly different things and O'Mara was dealing here with the personalities of simple, uncomplicated, over-sentimental and very angry construction men.
When he had joined the project six months before, O'Mara found that he was doomed again to the performance of a job which, while important in itself, gave him no satisfaction and was far below his capabilities. Since school his life had been a series of such frustrations. Personnel officers could not believe that a young man with such square, ugly features and shoulders so huge that his head looked moronically small by comparison could be interested in subtle subjects like psychology or electronics. He had gone into space in the hope of finding things different, but no. Despite constant efforts during interviews to impress people with his quite considerable knowledge, they were too dazzled by his muscle-power to listen, and his applications were invariably stamped "Approved Suitable for Heavy, Sustained Labor."
On joining this project he had decided to make the best of what promised to be another boring, frustrating job — he decided to become an unpopular character. As a result his life had been anything but boring. But now he was wishing that he had not been so successful at making himself disliked.
What he needed most at this moment was friends, and he hadn't a single one.
O'Mara's mind was dragged back from the dismal past to the even less pleasant present by the sharp all-pervading odor of the Hudlarian's food compound. Something would have to be done about that, and quickly. He hurriedly got into his lightweight suit and went through the lock.
His living quarters were in a tiny sub-assembly which would one day form the theater surgical ward and adjoining storage compartments of the hospital's low-gravity MSVK section. Two small rooms with a connecting section of corridor had been pressurized and fitted with artificial gravity grids for ÒMara's benefit, the rest of the structure remaining both airless and weightless. He drifted along short, unfinished corridors whose ends were open to space, staring into the bare, angular compartments which slid past. They were all full of trailing plumbing and half-built machinery the purpose of which it was impossible to guess without actually taking an MSVK educator tape. But all the compartments he examined were either too small to hold the alien or they were open in one direction to space. O'Mara swore with restraint but great feeling, pushed himself out to one of the ragged edges of his tiny domain and glared around him.
Above, below and all around him out to a distance of ten miles floated pieces of hospital, invisible except for the bright blue lights scattered over them as a warning to ship traffic in the area. It was a little like being at the center of a dense globular star cluster, ÒMara thought, and rather beautiful if you were in a mood to appreciate it. He wasn't, because on most of these floating sub-assemblies there were pressor-beam men on watch, placed there to fend off sections which threatened to collide. These men would see and report it to Caxton if O'Mara took his baby alien outside even for feeding.
The only answer apparently, he told himself disgustedly as he retraced his way, was nose-plugs.
Inside the lock he was greeted by a noise like a tinny foghorn. It blared out in long, discordant blasts with just enough interval in between to make him dread the arrival of the next one. Investigation revealed bare patches of hide showing through the last coat of food, so presumably his little darling was hungry again. O'Mara went for the sprayer.
When he had about three square yards covered there was an interruption. Dr. Pelling arrived.
The project doctor took off his helmet and gauntlets only, flexed the stiffness out of his fingers and growled, "I believe you hurt your leg. Let's have a look."
Pelling could not have been more gentle as he explored O'Mara's injured leg, but what he was doing was plainly a duty rather than an act of friendship. His voice was reserved as he said, "Severe bruising and a couple of pulled tendons is all — you were lucky. Rest. I'll give you some stuff to rub on it. Have you been redecorating?"
"What ...?" began O'Mara, then saw where the doctor was looking. "That's food compound. The little so-and-so kept moving while I was spraying it. But speaking of the youngster, can you tell me — "
"No, I can't," said Pelling. "My brain is overloaded enough with the ills and remedies of my own species without my trying to stuff it with FROB physiology tapes. Besides, they're tough — nothing can happen to them!" He sniffed loudly and made a face. "Why don't you keep it outside?"
"Certain people are too soft-hearted," O'Mara replied bitterly. "They are horrified by such apparent cruelties as lifting kittens by the scruff of the neck ..."
"Humph," said the doctor, looking almost sympathetic. "Well, that's your problem. See you in a couple of weeks."
"Wait!" O'Mara called urgently, hobbling after the doctor with one empty trouser leg flapping. "What if something does happen? And there has to be rules about the care and feeding of these things, simple rules. You can't just leave me to ... to ..."
"I see what you mean," said Pelling. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then went on, "There's a book kicking around my place somewhere, a sort of Hudlarian first aid handbook. But it's printed in Universal ..."
"I read Universal," said O'Mara.
Pelling looked surprised. "Bright boy. All right, I'll send it over." He nodded curtly and left.
O'Mara closed the bedroom door in the hope that this might cut down the intensity of the food smell, then lowered himself carefully into the living room couch for what he told himself was a well-deserved rest. He settled his leg so that it ached almost comfortably and began trying to talk himself into an acceptance of the situation. The best he could achieve was a seething, philosophical calm.
But he was so weary that even the effort of feeling angry became too much for him. His eyelids dropped and a warm deadness began creeping up from his hands and feet. O'Mara sighed, wriggled and prepared to sleep ...
The sound which blasted him out of his couch had the strident, authoritative urgency of all the alarm sirens that ever were and a volume which threatened to blow the bedroom door off its runners. O'Mara grabbed instinctively for his spacesuit, dropped it with a curse as he realized what was happening, then went for the sprayer.
Junior was hungry again ...!
During the eighteen hours which followed it was brought home to O'Mara how much he did not know about infant Hudlarians. He had spoken many times to its parents via Translator, and the baby had been mentioned often, but somehow they had not spoken of the important things. Sleep, for instance.
Excerpted from "Beginning Operations"
Copyright © 2001 Estate of James White.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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