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James White

Star Surgeon

To George L. Charters for lots of reasons

Sector General 2

CHAPTER 1

Far out on the galactic Rim, where star systems were sparse and the darkness nearly absolute, Sector Twelve General Hospital hung in space. In its three hundred and eighty-four levels were reproduced in the environments of all the intelligent life-forms known to the Galactic Federation, a biological spectrum ranging from the ultra-frigid methane life forms through the more normal oxygen- and chlorine-breathing types up to the exotic beings who existed by the direct conversion of hard radiation. Its thousands of view ports were constantly ablaze with light-light in the dazzling variety of color and intensity necessary for the visual equipment of its extra-terrestrial patients and staff-so that to approaching ships the great hospital looked like a tremendous, cylindrical Christmas tree.

Sector General represented a two-fold miracle of engineering and psychology. Its supply and maintenance was handled by the Monitor Corps — the Federation’s executive and law enforcement arm — who also saw to its administration, but the traditional friction between the military and civilian members of its staff did not occur. Neither were there any serious squabbles among its ten-thousand-odd medical personnel, who were composed of over sixty different life-forms with sixty differing sets of mannerisms, body. odors and ways of looking at life. Perhaps their one and only common denominator was the need of all doctors, regardless of size, shape or number of legs, to cure the sick.

The staff of Sector General was a dedicated, but not always serious, group of beings who were fanatically tolerant of all forms of intelligent life — had this not been so they would not have been there in the first place. And they prided themselves that no case was too big, too small or too hopeless. Their advice or assistance was sought by medical authorities from all over the Galaxy. Pacifists all, they waged a constant, all — out war against suffering and disease whether it was in individuals or whole planetary populations.

But there were times when the diagnosis and treatment of a diseased interstellar culture, entailing the surgical removal of deeply-rooted prejudice and insane moral values without either the patient’s cooperation or consent could, despite the pacifism of the doctors concerned, lead to the waging of war. Period.

The patient being brought into the observation ward was a large specimen — about one thousand pounds mass, Conway estimated — and resembled a giant, upright pear. Five thick, tentacular appendages grew from the narrow head section and a heavy apron of muscle at its base gave evidence of a snail-like, although not necessarily slow, method of locomotion. The whole body surface looked raw and lacerated, as though someone had been trying to take its skin off with a wire brush.

To Conway there was nothing very unusual about the physical aspect of the patient or its condition, six years in space Sector General Hospital having accustomed him to much more startling sights, so he moved forward to make a preliminary examination. Immediately the Monitor Corps lieutenant who had accompanied the patient’s trolley into the ward moved closer also. Conway tried to ignore the feeling of breath on the back of his neck and took a closer look at the patient.

Five large mouths were situated below the root of each tentacle, four being plentifully supplied with teeth and the fifth housing the vocal apparatus. The tentacles themselves showed a high degree of specialization at their extremities; three of them were plainly manipulatory, one bore the patient’s visual equipment and the remaining member terminated in a horn-tipped, honey mace. The head was featureless, being simply an osseous dome housing the patient’s brain.

There wasn’t much else to he seen from a superficial examination. Conway turned to get his deep probe gear, and walked on the Monitor officer’s feet.

“Have you ever considered taking up medicine seriously, Lieutenant?” he said irritably.

The lieutenant reddened, his face making a horrible clash of color against the dark green of his uniform collar. He said stiffly, “This patient is a criminal. It was found in circumstances which indicate that it killed and ate the other member of its ship’s crew. It has been unconscious during the trip here, but I’ve been ordered to stand guard on it just in case. I’ll try to stay out of your way, Doctor.”

Conway swallowed, his eyes going to the vicious-looking, horny bludgeon with which, he had no doubt, the patient’s species had battered their way to the top of their evolutionary tree. He said dryly, “Don’t try too hard, Lieutenant.”

Using his eyes and a portable X-ray scanner Conway examined his patient thoroughly inside and out. He took several specimens, including sections of the affected skin, and sent them off to Pathology with three closely written pages of covering notes. Then he stood back and scratched his head.

The patient was warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing, and had fairly normal gravity and pressure requirements which, when considered with the general shape of the beastie, put its physiological classification as EPLH. It seemed to be suffering from a well-developed and widespread epithelioma, the symptoms being so plain that he really should have begun treatment without waiting for the Path report. But a cancerous skin condition did not, ordinarily, render a patient deeply unconscious.

That could point to psychological complications, he knew, and in that case he would have to call in some specialized help. One of his telepathic colleagues was the obvious choice, if it hadn’t been for the fact that telepaths could only rarely work minds that were not already telepathic and of the same species as themselves. Except for the very odd instance, telepathy had been found to be a strictly closed circuit form of communication. Which left his GLNO friend, the empath Dr. Prilicla …

Behind him the Lieutenant coughed gently and said, “When you’ve finished the examination, Doctor, O’Mara would like to see you.”

Conway nodded. “I’m going to send someone to keep an eye on the patient,” he said, grinning, “guard them as well as you’ve guarded me.”

Going through to the main ward Conway detailed an Earth-human nurse — a very good-looking Earth-human nurse — to duty in the observation ward. He could have sent in one of the Tralthan FGLIs, who belonged to a species with six legs and so built that beside one of them an Earthly elephant would have seemed a fragile, sylph- like creature, but he felt that he owed the Lieutenant something for his earlier bad manners.

Twenty minutes later, after three changes of protective armor and a trip through the chlorine section, a corridor belonging to the AUGL water breathers and the ultra-refrigerated wards of the methane life-forms, Conway presented himself at the office of Major O’Mara.

As Chief Psychologist of a multi-environment hospital hanging in frigid blackness at the Galactic rim, he was responsible for the mental well-being of a Staff of ten thousand entities who were composed of eighty-seven different species. O’Mara was a very important man at Sector General. He was also, on his own admission, the most approachable man in the hospital. O’Mara was fond of saying that he didn’t care who approached him or when, but if they hadn’t a very good reason for pestering him with their silly little problems then they needn’t expect to get away from him again unscathed. To O’Mara the medical staff were patients, and it was the generally held belief that the high level of stability among that variegated and often touchy bunch of e-ts was due to them being too scared of O’Mara to go mad. But today he was in an almost sociable mood.

“This will take more than five minutes so you’d better sit down, Doctor,” he said sourly when Conway stopped before his desk. “I take it you’ve had a look at our cannibal?”

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