The shuttlecraft from the port of Montreal to Hospital San Francisco had already departed with Valeris arrived at the loading platform, even though she had taken great pains to be at least 30 minutes early for the boarding.
"Ma'am, you'll just have to wait for the next one," the clerk at the dispatcher's booth told her. "There's nothing else for you to do."
"Impossible!" Valeris said. "I've got to be in Hospital San Francisco by daybreak." She 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's got to be somewhere else, right away. The next shuttle goes in three hours."
"I had a reservation on this one!" Valeris insisted.
"Sure you did," the clerk said sharply. "Only graduates can get reservations this time of year....." He broke off to stare at Valeris, a puzzled frown on his face. "Let me see that reservation."
Valeris fumbled in the rear pocket of her form-fitting designer jeans for the yellow reservation slip. She was wishing now that she'd kept her mouth shut. She was acutely aware of the clerk's suspicious stare, and suddenly she felt extremely awkward. She was a very attractive woman, that was true, despite the elflike pointed ears. The only mistake she'd made was in crimping her long hair and dying it golden blonde. Blonde, as she realized too late, looked best on human females, not non-human ones. Now, as she handed the reservation slip across the counter, Valeris saw the clerk noticing that her well-shaped hand was trembling, not from nerves, but from a temperature norm she was physically unaccustomed to. "Here it is," she 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 shuttlecraft to Hospital San Francisco for three hours," he said, "unless you have a priority card. Do you?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't," Valeris 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're welcome to try," the clerk said, "but you'd better be ready when they start loading. You can wait up on the ramp if you wish."
Valeris turned and started across the main concourse of the great airport. She felt a stir of motion at her side, and looked down at the small pink blob sitting in the crook of her arm. "Looks like we're out of luck, friend," she 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 blob on her arm opened a pair of black shoe-button eyes and blinked up at her, and Valeris absently stroked the tiny creature with a finger. The blob quivered happily and clung closer to Valeris's side as she started up the long ramp to the observation platform. Automatic doors hissed open as she reached the top, and Valeris shivered in the damp night air. Silently, she cursed herself for choosing a tank-top shirt to wear instead of a conscientious long-sleeved blouse, for the tank-top exposed her head, shoulders, and neck to coldness and dampness that her body was never intended by nature to endure.
Below her the bright lights of the landing fields and terminal buildings of the port of Montreal spread out in panorama, and she thought with a sudden pang of the great space-port on her home planet, so very different from this one and so unthinkably far away. The field below was alive with activity, alive with men and women and vehicles. Moments ago, one of Earth's great hospital ships had landed returning from a cruise deep into the Galactic Core, bringing in the seriously ill from a thousand star systems for care in one of Earth's hospitals. Valeris watched as the long line of stretchers poured from the ship's hull with white-clad orderlies in apprehensive attendance. Some of the stretchers were encased in special atmosphere tanks; a siren wailed across the field as an ambulance raced up with fresh gas bottles for a freitine-breather from the Conecoatl system, and a derrick crew spent fifteen minutes lifting down the special liquid helium tank housing a native of Palarion's massive seventeenth planet.
All about the field were physicians supervising the process of disembarkation, resplendent in the colors that signified their medical specialties. At the foot of landing crane a Three-star Intern in the green cape of the Medical Service---obviously the commander of the ship---was talking with the welcoming officials of Hospital Earth. Twelve 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 Valeris with their bright red capes fluttering in the breeze, headed for customs and their first Earthside shore-leave in months. Valeris watched them go by, and felt the sick, bitter feeling in the pit of her stomach that she had felt so often in recent months.
She had dreamed, once, of wearing the red cape of the Red Service of Surgery too, with the gold star of the Star Surgeon on her collar. That had been a long time ago, over nine Earth years ago; the dream had faded slowly, but now the final vestige of hope was nearly gone. She thought of the long years of intensive training she had just completed in the medical school of Hospital Montreal, 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 her mind.
A dream, she thought hopelessly, a foolish dream 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 she shook her head and felt a little ashamed of the thought. It wasn't quite true, and she knew it. She had known that it was a gamble from the very first. Black Doctor Shah had warned her the day she received her notice of acceptance to the medical school. "I cannot promise you anything," the old man had said, "except a small chance. There are those who will fight you to the very end to prevent you from succeeding, and when all is said and done, you may fail. But if you are truly willing to take that risk, then at least you have a chance."
Valeris had accepted the risk with her eyes wide open. She had done the best she could do, and now she had lost. True, she had not received the final, irrevocable word that she had been dismissed from the medical service of Hospital Earth, but she was sure now that it was waiting for her when she arrived at Hospital San Francisco the following morning.
The loading ramp was beginning to fill up, and Valeris saw six of her 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 her, standing by herself against the guard rail. One or two nodded coolly and turned away; the others just ignored her. Nobody greeted her, nor even smiled. Valeris turned away and stared down once again at the busy activity on the field below.
"Why so glum, Val?" a voice behind her said. "Ship leave without you, or something?"
Valeris looked at the tall, brown-haired young man, towering at her side, and smiled ruefully. "Greetings, Bones! As a matter of fact, it did leave. I'm waiting for the next one."
"Where're you going?" Leonard McCoy frowned down at Valeris. Known as "Bones" to everyone but his professors, the young man's nickname fit him well. He was big, even for a Terran, and his massive shoulders and stubborn jaw only served to emphasize that bigness. Like the other recent graduates on the platform, he was waring 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 blob sitting on Valeris's arm. "What's wrong, Val? Even Blob looks worried. Hey! Where's your collar and cuff?"
"I didn't get them," Valeris said.
"Didn't you get an assignment?" Bones stared at her. "Or are you taking leave first?"
Valeris shook her head. "A permanent leave, apparently," she said bitterly. "There's not going to be any assignment for me. Let's face it, Bones. I'm washed out."
"Now, wait a minute...."
"I'm serious. I've been bounced. It's just that simple."
"You've been in the top ten in the class right through!" Bones protested. "You know you passed your finals. What the hell's going on here?"
Valeris reached into her purse and handed Bones a blue paper envelope. "I should have seen this coming. They sent me this instead of my collar and cuff."
Bones opened the envelope. "From Doctor Chang," he grunted. "The ol' Black Death himself. But what is it?"
"Read it," Valeris said.
" 'You are hereby ordered to appeared before the medical training praesidium in the praesidium chambers in Hospital San Francisco at 10:00 A.M., Friday, July 25, 2486, in order that your application for assignment to a General Practice Patrol ship may be reviewed. You will not wear insignia. Signed, Blasius Chang, Physician, Black Service of Pathology." Bones blinked at the notice and handed it back to Valeris. "That's not right," he said finally. "You applied, you're as qualified as any of us...."
"Except in one way," Valeris said, "and that's the way that counts. They don't want me, Bones. They have never wanted me. They only let me go through school because Black Doctor Shah made an issue of it, and they didn't have the guts to veto him. But they never intended to let me finish, not for one minute."
For one moment the two were quiet, staring down at the busy landing procedures below. A warning light was flickering across the field, signaling the landing of an incoming shuttlecraft, and the supply cars broke from their positions in the center of the field and fled like beetles for the security of the garages. A loudspeaker blared, announcing the incoming craft. Valeris turned, lifting Blob gently from her arm and tucking him away into her purse. "I guess this is my flight, Bones. I'd better get in line."
Leonard McCoy gripped Valeris's pretty hand tightly. "Look," he said intensely, "this is some kind of mistake that the praesidium will straighten out. I'm sure of it. Lots of people 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," Bones said. "But if they were washing you out, why would the praesidium be reviewing it? Somebody must be fighting for you."
"But Black Doctor Chang is on the praesidium," Valeris said.
"He's not the only one on the praesidium. It's going to work out. You'll see."
"I hope so," Valeris said without conviction. She started for the loading line, then turned. "But where are you going to be? What ship?"
Bones hesitated. "I'm not assigned yet. I'm taking shore leave. But you'll be hearing from me."
The loading call blared from the loudspeaker. The tall Terran seemed about to say something more, but Valeris turned away and headed across toward the line for the shuttlecraft. Ten minutes later, she was aloft as the tiny plane speared up through the black night sky and turned its needle nose toward the west.
She tried to sleep, but couldn't. The shuttle trip from the Port of Montreal to Hospital San Francisco was almost two hours long because of passengers stops at Hospital Memphis, Clinton City, New Chicago, and Hospital Denver. In spite of the help of the pneumatic seats and a sleep-cap, Valeris 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 cloud-free. Valeris stared down at the patchwork of lights that flickered up at him from the ground below.
Passing below her were some of the great cities, the hospitals, the research and training centers, the residential zones and supply houses of Hospital Earth, medical center to the powerful Federation of Planets, physician in charge of the house of a thousand intelligent races on a thousand planets of a thousand distant star systems. Here, she knew, was the ivory tower of intergalactic medicine, the hub from which the medical care of the federation arose. From the huge hospitals, research centers, and medical schools here, the physicians of Hospital Earth went out to all corners of the galaxy, and in the General Practice Patrol ships that traveled 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.
Valeris had been on Hospital Earth for nine years, and still she was a stranger here. To her this was an alien planet, different in thousands of ways from Vulcan, the planet where she was born and grew to womanhood. For a moment now she thought of her native home, the second planet of the star the Terrans called 40 Eridani A, sixteen light years from Earth. Unthinkably distant, yet only mere days away thanks to the power of the warp-drive motors that its people had developed a few hundred years before, Vulcan was a hot, reddish Class-M planet of deserts and mountain ranges, the trading center of the galaxy and the governmental headquarters of the powerful Federation of Planets. Valeris could remember the days before she had come to Hospital Earth, and the many times she had longed desperately to be home again.
She drew her blobby pink friend out of her purse and rested him on her shoulder, felt the little silent creature rub happily against her neck. It had been her own decision to come here, Valeris knew; no one else was to blame. Her people were not physicians. Their instincts and interests lay in trading and politics, not in bio-sciences, and plague after deadly plague had swept across her home planet in the centuries before Hospital Earth had been admitted as a probationary member of the Federation of Planets.
But as long as Valeris could remember, she wanted to be a doctor. From the first time he had seen a General Practice Patrol ship landing in her home city, ShiKhar, to fight the plague that was killing her people by the thousands, she had known that this was what she wanted more than anything else: to be a physician of Hospital Earth, to join the ranks of the doctors who were serving the galaxy.
Many on Earth had tried to de-rail her from the first. She was a Vulcan, alien to Earth's climate and people. The physical differences between Terrans and Vulcans were small, but just enough to set her apart and make her stand out as a non-terrestrial. The main physical difference was her eyebrows and ears, the former being arched and upswept, while the latter featured pinnae that tapered to a point at the top (those ears had been the subject of jokes on many occasions). Her complexion was Caucasoid-like with a subtle greenish hue to her skin, due to her people's copper-based blood. And even though it had long been known that Terrans and Vulcans were equal in range of intelligence, her classmates still assumed just from her appearance that she was either unusually clever or unusually stupid.
Her classmates had been civil enough, yet with one or two exceptions, they had avoided her carefully. Clearly they resented her presence in their lecture rooms and laboratories. Clearly they felt that she did not belong there, studying medicine.
From the first they had let her know unmistakably that she was not welcome, an intruder in their midst, the first member of an alien race ever to try to earn the insignia of a physician of Hospital Earth.
And now, Valeris knew she had failed after all. She had been given a chance solely because of powerful physician in the Black Service of Pathology had taken her under his wing. Had it not been for the friendship and support of another Terran in the class, Bones McCoy, the nine years of study would have been unbearably lonely.
But now, she thought, it would've been simpler never to have started than to have her goal snatched away at the last minute. The notice of the praesidium meeting left no room for doubt in her mind. She had failed. There would be much, some perfunctory debate merely for the sake of the record, and the medical praesidium would wash their hands of her once and for all. The decision, she was sure, had already been made. It was just a matter of going through the formal motions.
Valeris felt the motors change in pitch, and the needle-nosed shuttlecraft began dipping once more toward the horizon. Ahead she could see the sprawling lights of Hospital San Francisco, stretching from the sea and beyond, north to Alaska and south toward Mexico. Somewhere down there was a the praesidium's deliberation chamber where twelve of the most powerful physicians on Hospital Earth, now sound asleep, would be meeting tomorrow for a trial that was already over, to pass a judgment that was already decided.
She slipped Blob back into her purse, hitched it up on her shoulder, and waited for the ship to come down for landing. It would be nice, she thought wryly, if her reservations for sleeping quarters in the students' barracks might at least be honored, but now she wasn't even sure of that.
In the port of San Francisco she went through the usual baggage check. She saw the clerk rudely leering at her beautiful face, and then read her passage permit carefully before brushing her on through. Then she joined the crowd of commuters heading for the city subways. She didn't hear the loudspeaker blaring until the announcer had stumbled over her name half a dozen times.
"Doctor Valeris, report to information kiosk. Doctor Valeris, report to information kiosk."
She hurried back to central information. "I'm Doctor Valeris. What is it?"
"Cell phone message, ma'am," the announcer said, her voice surprisingly respectful. "Priority 1 call. Just a minute."
Moments later he had handed Valeris the sleek, black cell phone, and Valeris studied the text message on the little screen
CALL AT MY QUARTERS ON ARRIVAL REGARDLESS OF HOUR. IMPORTANT THAT I SEE YOU! IMPORTANT!
The message was signed Haroon Shah, Black Service, and carried the priority seal of the Four-star Pathologist. Valeris read it again, shifted her purse, and started once more for the subway ramp. Her step quickened as she heard the whistle of the acceleratube trains up ahead.
Black Doctor Shah, the man who had first defended her right to study medicine on Hospital Earth, now wanted to see her before the praesidium meeting took place.
For the first time in several days, Valeris felt a new flicker of hope.ns 126.96.36.199da2