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James White

The Galactic Gourmet

Sector General 09

CHAPTER 1

Gurronsevas had long been accustomed to being accorded the outward forms of respect by persons nominally his superior, and usually it was because of his enormous physical strength and body mass, rather than his less obvious attributes of high intelligence and unrivalled professional experience. Being invited to view the final approach from the courier vessel’s tiny control deck was a courtesy rarely extended to a ship’s passenger even when, as in his own case, he was the only one. But he wished heartily that the Captain had shown less politeness and more consideration by allowing him to complete the voyage in Tennochlan’s uncluttered and much roomier cargo hold.

He watched in polite silence and mounting awe, his physical discomfort forgotten, as the gigantic, complex structure that was Sector Twelve General Hospital grew larger until the forward view-screen was entirely filled by the breathtaking sight of dazzling, regimented lines of approach beacons, dock floodlighting, and the external ports and ward-viewing galleries that were ablaze with every color and intensity of light that the occupants considered normal.

Beside him Captain Mallan showed its teeth briefly and made the untranslatable, barking sound which among Earth-humans signified humor. It said, “Enjoy the view while you can. The people who work here rarely get the chance to see the outside of their world.”

The other officers on the flight deck maintained the silence of subordinates and, there being nothing of importance that he wished to say, Gurronsevas joined them.

Suddenly the image disappeared to be replaced by a picture of a pale-green Illensan chlorine-breather whose outlines were partially concealed by the yellow fog inside its protective envelope. It was seated at a communications console, and the flat, translated voice still retained some of the hissing and moaning quality of the original word-sounds as it spoke.

“Reception,” it said quickly. “Identify yourselves, please. State whether patient, visitor, or staff, and give species. If there is an emergency condition please give patient clinical details first, then the physiological classifications of the others so we can arrange suitable accommodation, life-support, and proper type and periodicity of meals.”

“Meals,” said the Captain, looking at Gurronsevas and showing its teeth again. It pressed the transmit stud and said briskly, “No medical emergency on board. I am Major Mallan, commanding Monitor Corps scoutship Tennochlan, courier flight from Retlin on Nidia. Crew of four, all Earth-human DBDG classification plus one passenger, Gurronsevas, a Tralthan FGLI joining the hospital staff. All are warm-blooded oxygen-breathers and this one, myself, would certainly appreciate a change from ship rations …”

“Wait,” said Reception, who plainly was not disposed to waste time discussing the subject of Earth-human food, the ingestion of which would have been instantly lethal to an Illensan. The image of the hospital structure returned to the screen, looking closer and even more impressive, but only for a moment.

“Please follow the red-yellow-red beacons to the vacant Class Three docking cradle adjoining Lock Twenty- three,” it went on briskly. “Monitor Corps officers will report to Colonel Skempton. Gurronsevas will be met by Lieutenant Timmins on arrival.”

Was this another courtesy, Gurronsevas wondered, from a being who might or might not consider itself his superior? Somehow he doubted it. The being in Reception had not been impressed by his name, yet they must have heard of him even amidst the poisonous yellow fog of chlorine-breathing Illensa. But there had been no mention of the famous or the renowned or the great Gurronsevas, whose name and unique ability was admired and debated by the cultured members of every warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing species in the Federation, and whose unique contribution to and presence on any one of their home worlds would have been a matter for planetary pride. There had merely been the brief statement that Gurronsevas would be met.

A lesser being than himself might have felt uncertain, or even insulted.

The entity Timmins turned out to be an Earth-human DBDG whose dark-green uniform coveralls, although clean and well-pressed, were so well-worn that the insignia of rank were all but invisible. Its head fur was the color of dull copper, it showed its teeth readily in the non-aggressive grimace its species called a smile, and its manner was brisk and moderately respectful.

“Welcome on board, sir,” it said when the introductions had been performed. “Technically, Sector General is too small to be a planet and too large to be a star-going vessel, but a ship is how the purists like to refer to it when we are not calling it something much more derogatory. As soon as convenient I had planned to show you to your quarters and explain the equipment and functioning. As Head of Maintenance your environmental control systems are a part of my responsibility, but Major O’Mara would like to see you in his office sooner than that. Allowing for traffic density in the intervening corridors, and a delay while changing to lightweight protective envelopes for the short-cut through the level of the chlorine-breathing PVSJs, it should take about twenty minutes. On the way you can have the usual but usually inadequate briefing given to a new arrival.

“With your permission, sir,” he added, “I’ll lead the way and talk as we walk.”

As Gurronsevas followed Timmins out of the lock antechamber and along the boarding tube and into the hospital proper, the Lieutenant apologized in advance in case he was imparting information already known to him, and explained that Sector General was the largest, most technologically advanced and professionally respected multi-environment hospital ever to come into being. Many planetary cultures had contributed to its building, fabricating sections and transporting them over a period of nearly two decades to the assembly area in Galactic Sector Twelve. It was supplied and maintained by the Monitor Corps, the Federation’s executive and law- enforcement arm, but it was not and never would be a military establishment. In its three hundred and eighty-four levels could be reproduced the environments of all of the life-forms known to the Galactic Federation, a physiological spectrum ranging from the ultra-frigid methane life-forms through the more normal oxygen- and chlorine-breathing types to the more exotic beings who lived by the direct conversion of hard radiation.

Gurronsevas missed a few of the Lieutenant’s words because he was being forced to concentrate a large proportion of his attention on avoiding injury or embarrassment by colliding with or walking on entities larger or smaller than himself. He was travelling inside a combination white-walled, three-dimensional maze, and a noisy and overcrowded extra-terrestrial menagerie, and soon he would be expected to find his own way through it.

Two crab-like Melfan ELNTs and an Illensan PVSJ chittered and hissed their displeasure at him as he stopped awkwardly in the middle of an intersection to let them pass. In so doing he jostled a tiny, red-furred Nidian who barked a reproof at him. But the simple translator that he had been given on Tennochlan was programmed only for Earth-human/Tralthan speech, so that he did not know what exactly anyone within earshot was whistling, cheeping, growling or moaning at him.

“… Theoretically the staff member possessing the greater medical seniority has right of way,” Timmins was saying, “and you will soon learn to identify the different ranks from the color markings on the arm-bands that everyone wears. As yet you have no armband, so your rank is uncertain… Quickly, please, move flat against the wall!”

A great hissing and clanking juggernaut that was nearly half the width of the corridor was bearing down on them. It was the mobile protective armor used by SNLU medics, who normally breathed superheated steam, and whose pressure and gravity requirements were many times greater than that of the — to them, lethal — environment of the oxygen-breathing levels. In a situation like this, Timmins said with a brief show of teeth, it was better to ignore differences in rank, allow the instinct for self-preservation to take over, and get out of the way fast.

“You are adapting to the situation here very well, sir,” the Lieutenant went on. “I have known first-time visitors to the hospital who went into a panic reaction, they ran and hid themselves or froze into fear paralysis,

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