Now, in the latest adventure, the empathic Dr. Prilicla, a veteran of Sector General for years, is put in command of an expedition answering three distress beacons. What he finds is two hitherto-unknown intelligent species, one of which has nearly wiped out the other. And he also finds evidence of a botched first contact--along with a rare opportunity to set matters right.
Assuming, as always, that he can make an accurate diagnosis....
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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.
Read an Excerpt
A Sector General Novel
By James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 James White
All rights reserved.
The late afternoon sun, its outlines shredded by ground-heat distortion and the continuous toxic gales that swept the planet, wavered in and out of visibility in the brown sky like a dull red and ragged-edged flag. When it set in a few hours' time there would be total darkness. The moon was too dim to be seen through the turbulent and nearly opaque atmosphere, and the stars had not been visible from the surface for close on three centuries.
The world that was Trolann raged and stormed and stank all around them as they paused for a moment outside the first of the series of detoxification chambers that gave access to their underground home, because they wanted to look at the familiar and abhorrent scenery for what would be the last time.
Their lifesuit sensors told of a film of insects and windblown spores that were trying vainly to penetrate the superfine joints in the mechanisms that provided ground mobility, and kept their visors clean so that they could see virtually nothing with more clarity.
"Not a druul in sight," said Jasam. "It's safe to go in."
He pressed the activator on the first entry seal with the suit's forward manipulator, then swept it around to indicate the dull, wavering sun; the driving, poisonous fog; and the blurred outlines of the surface extensions of their neighbors' homes. He looked at Keet and sighed.
"We had a good life together here," he said, "and for the next few days" — he made an attempt to lighten their mood as he went on — "this hi-tech hole in the ground will be a very happy home."
"Until we find a new one," said Keet, impatient as always when he stated the obvious. "I'm hungry and I want us out of these things."
"Me, too," said Jasam with enthusiasm; then, in a more reasonable voice he went on. "But there's no need to be hungry. The suit food is no worse than the stuff in the larder. Since our final selection it's been the best available. So go ahead and eat; that's as good a way as any of passing the decontamination time."
"No," said Keet firmly. "I want us to eat together, every chance we get while we still can, and not separately like a couple of working colleagues. Sometimes, Jasam, you display the romantic sensitivity of, of a druul in heat."
He did not have to answer this grossest of all personal insults because they both knew that she was joking, and that people only joked about that particular form of hellish Trolanni life in an attempt to hide their utter fear and loathing for it. Besides, his answer would come later in actions rather than words.
Neither of them made use of their built-in food supply while their suits went through the slow, tedious, but absolutely necessary stages of surface cleansing with disinfectant sprays, surface irradiation, and flash heating. Many of the microorganic and insect life-forms that had recently evolved on the surface, when given the chance to penetrate the defenses of a Trolanni household, had proved themselves capable of wiping out the occupants in a few minutes. But when they both finally emerged into the core living quarters, they were as sure as it was possible to be that they were free of unwanted organic company.
Jasam stood for a moment looking at Keet, or rather at the delicately contoured head, shapely body, and short, tapering limbs of her lifesuit, while she stared back at the taller, more ruggedly handsome, and well-muscled shape that he wore. Protective suits were invariably as well-formed and lifelike as their owners could afford. While still young adults, Keet and himself had progressed to a level of excellence in their field where they could afford the best. But the people inside those realistic lifesuits were much smaller, more sickly, and, regrettably, not nearly as beautiful as their handsome body coverings.
Outside them, however, they could touch each other without a cybernetic interface diluting or crudely enhancing every tactile sensation.
With intense but controlled impatience he detached himself from the suit's visual, aural, and tactile relays, its food and water spigots, and, even more cautiously, from the deeply implanted waste-elimination systems. He had extricated himself before she did, and watched her lovingly as she opened the long, abdominal seal and struggled free like an adult newborn climbing slowly out of its mother's womb.
Her body, as did his own, showed the areas of rash, the skin discoloration, the pocking and scars of past skin eruptions that were the visible inheritance of living in an environment that no longer supported their kind of life. But she looked little different from the time he had seen her like this on their first night of mating, and she was beautiful. When she freed herself, their beautiful and handsomely proportioned lifesuits were left lying lifelessly on the floor as they crawled eagerly towards each other.
When they had to pause for a necessary rest, they ate a meal to which Keet had added various decorative and olfactory touches to disguise the taste of their standard, aseptic, and machine-processed food. But the searchsuit project chief had told them that their unsuited time together would be limited to the next three days, and eating and resting was not what they most wanted to do together. They tried not to talk about the project, but there were times when their physical and emotional resistance was so low that the subject sneaked up on them.
"I'm not complaining, mind," said Keet, "but after three days of this we won't be at our best for the surgeons. We'll be, well, very tired."
"They won't mind that," Jasam replied reassuringly. "You weren't listening between the lines during our last interview. Suit-insertion surgery, especially into an experimental one of this complexity, will be a lengthy, unpleasant procedure that requires conscious, cooperative, and relaxed subjects. Don't worry about it. At least we'll be in a physically relaxed condition before they go to work on us."
Even though they were already pressed together so tightly that such a thing was physically impossible, Keet tried to snuggle even closer. She said softly, "This is how babies are made."
"Not for us," he replied sharply, and tried without much success for a gentler tone as he went on. "If that had been possible, if either of us had been healthy enough and fertile, we would never have been allowed to volunteer, much less be accepted for Searchsuit Three. Instead we would have been buried more deeply and protected behind even more detoxification chambers than we have here, and given every comfort a mortal Trolanni could desire while teams of doctors tried to provide the medical and psychological support that might enable the sickly members of our poisoned species to procreate and our civilization to survive beyond the next few generations. The emotional feelings or otherwise of the couples concerned for each other would not have been the prime consideration. Survival would have been a necessity, an artificially-supported evolutionary imperative rather than a pleasure."
Once again Keet's expression was reflecting her impatience at being reminded of things she had not forgotten, and he was anxious not to spoil even a moment of their remaining touching time together.
"We would be even more debilitated than we are now," he added quickly, "but without having as much fun."
Even though the honor of being chosen to wear a searchsuit was greater than that previously accorded to any two members of their race, the pride they both felt was intense, so much so that there was little room in their minds for personal fear. But they did not speak of the project again, and neither did they look at the container that housed the tiny, hermetically sealed, and triple-protected sphere with its short-duration life support into which they would climb when the project engineers signaled that they were ready for the crew insertion. The few hours spent in that sphere, while it was being transported under maximum protection from their home to the project surgery, would be the last they could ever spend in physical contact with each other.
The first searchsuit had been intercepted and destroyed by the druul while it was still in atmosphere, and the second, if it had succeeded in finding anything, had not returned to report. Searchsuit Three was the most advanced and technologically sophisticated fabrication to be produced by Trolanni science and, considering their planet's deteriorating environment and diminished resources, it would almost certainly be the last. On its success rested the hopes of their species.
It was a suit built for the two of them and designed to cater to their physical needs for a period far beyond their most optimistic projected lifetimes on Trolanni. In it they would be in constant communication for as long as they lived. But the suit was huge — bigger by far, and with more complex and wide-ranging control and sensory systems, than either of its predecessors. So large was it that when they wore it, they would never in their remaining lifetimes be able to touch each other again. In spite of the greatly increased antidruul defenses and the supporting treatments provided by the project's engineers and psychologists, he wondered if the dangers facing them would be mental rather than physical.
"At least," said Keet, as if reading his mind, "we'll be able to play with our dolls."CHAPTER 2
The inner office of Sector General's new administrator and chief psychologist resembled a medieval torture chamber from the history of Earth, according to the memories of the current DBDG mind donor he was carrying. But the resemblance was not close — partly because a collection of tastefully chosen views of non-terrestrial land and seascapes hung on the walls, and partly because the torture devices were actually weirdly shaped and deeply upholstered furniture. On these, the other-species staff that had business with Administrator Braithwaite could sit, squat, hang, or otherwise take their ease — assuming that whatever they had been doing had not warranted the criticism of the most powerful being in the hospital.
On this occasion Prilicla's own conscience was clear, and as an empath he knew that the same condition applied to his smartly uniformed companion, Captain Fletcher, who was standing before the big desk beside him. The emotional radiation emanating from the similarly Earth-human Administrator Braithwaite, composed as it was of a strange combination of concern with a strong undercurrent of urgency, was such that Prilicla knew they would not be invited to make use of the office furniture. Even so, the other was for some reason feeling hesitant about speaking.
"Sir," said the captain, glancing at Prilicla, who was hovering close to its shoulder and stirring a few strands of its brown head-fur, "I was told that you wanted to see me urgently. I met Senior Physician Prilicla on the way here, and it had received the same message. We only work together on ambulance-ship rescue missions, so presumably you have another job for Rhabwar?"
Braithwaite inclined its head without speaking. Before its recent promotion to administrator it had been a Monitor Corps officer like Fletcher, the principal assistant to the then–Chief Psychologist O'Mara, and an outwardly imperturbable individual who wore its uniform as if it had been born with it as a well-fitting and wrinkle-free second skin. Now that it had resigned its commission, its impeccably-tailored civilian clothing still gave the impression that it was completely in control of itself and, in all physical and mental respects, ready for inspection.
"Possibly," it said finally.
Prilicla was beginning to share the captain's growing feeling of puzzlement. He said, "The administrator feels hesitancy, friend Fletcher. I can read emotions but not thoughts, as you know, but I feel sure that friend Braithwaite would prefer that we volunteered for this particular mission."
"I understand," said Fletcher. Still looking at the administrator, he went on. "We appreciate the politeness, sir, but you must be pretty sure what our response will be, so you would save time by simply telling us to volunteer. Rhabwar is maintained in constant flight-readiness, as you well know. The technical and medical crew haven't had any exercise with her for close on six months, and if the mission is urgent ... well, we can't hurry in hyperspace, so the only response time we can save will be between this office and the dock and, of course, our ship's speed in getting us out to jump distance." It hesitated and glanced quickly towards Prilicla, radiating a degree of uncertainty so mild that it was highly complimentary before it went on. "We volunteer."
Prilicla, who was far from being physically robust, belonged to a species which considered cowardice, moral or otherwise, to be its prime survival characteristic. The possession of a highly developed empathic faculty forced him to be agreeable to everyone in order to keep the emotional radiation in his immediate surroundings as pleasant as possible. He spoke with greater hesitation.
"Friend Braithwaite," he said cautiously, "what precisely are we volunteering for?"
"Thank you both," said the administrator, radiating relief. It pressed a key on its desk console and went on. "I've transferred all the available information to your ship's computer for later study. It isn't much, and all we know for sure is that three distress beacons have been detonated within a standard day of each other from the same location in Sector Eighteen. As we would expect from one of the incompletely explored areas, the first two bore radiation signatures that were new to us as well as being significantly different from each other in signal strength and duration. The third was a Federation standard-issue beacon belonging, we presume, to the Monitor Corps survey cruiser Terragar, which was engaged in mapping that sector, and which must have responded to the earlier two distress beacons. Our communications people don't know what to make of those first two beacons, if they were in fact distress beacons. That's why I hesitated about ordering Rhabwar to take this one."
Captain Fletcher's voice and emotional radiation still reflected the puzzlement they were both feeling, but Prilicla remained silent because he could feel that the other was about to ask the questions he himself wanted answered.
"Sir," Fletcher said respectfully, "your background is in other-species psychology, so you may not be aware of the technical background. But if this potted lecture is unnecessary, please tell me to shut up.
"Just as we know of only one method of traveling in hyperspace," it went on, "there is only one way of sending a distress signal if a major malfunction occurs and a vessel is stranded in normal space between the stars. Tight-beam subspace radio is not a dependable means of interstellar communication from a ship, subject as it is to interference and distortion from intervening stellar bodies as well as requiring inordinate amounts of power to send, power which a distressed ship is unlikely to have available. But a distress beacon doesn't have to carry intelligence. It is simply a nuclear-powered single-use device which broadcasts a location signal. It is a subspace cry for help which, in a matter of a few minutes or hours, burns itself out.
"Answering such calls for help from regions where the distressed vessel is almost certain to belong to a new, star-traveling species," it concluded, "is the reason why Rhabwar was built. I don't understand why you are hesitating, sir."
"Thank you, Captain," said the administrator, showing its teeth briefly in the peculiarly Earth-human snarl that denoted amusement. "Your explanation was clear, concise, and unnecessary. My hesitancy is due to the fact that three seperate distress beacons, two of them with radiation signatures that reveal a low order of design sophistication, were released in the same area. There may be three different and closely positioned ships out there, two of them belonging to a new intelligent species and all of them in trouble. But my communications specialists tell me that the first two appear to be crude devices which might not be distress beacons at all. Instead the signals may have been the radiation byproduct of a hyperspatial weapon of some kind. In short, they may not be cries for help, but shouts of anger. You could find yourselves rescuing other-species casualties who have been involved in an armed conflict. So be careful, with our special ambulance ship as well as your own lives. That is presupposing that Prilicla still intends to take part."
Excerpted from Double Contact by James White, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 1999 James White. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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