It was hours later when their spaceship reached the contact point co-ordinates. There had been little to no talk during the transit; each of them knew already what the other was thinking, and there wasn't much to be said. The message had said it for them.
Valeris's worst fears were realized when the investigation ship appeared, dropping out of Cochrane drive within a few miles of the Raphael. She had seen the spaceship before—a sleek, handsomely outfitted patrol class ship with the emblem of the Black Service of Pathology emblazoned on its hull, the private launch of a Four-star Black Doctor.
But none of them anticipated the action taken by the investigation ship as it drew within lifeboat range of the Raphael.
A scooter shot away from its storage rack on the black ship, and a team of Vulcans garbed in the maroon-and-black uniform of The V'Shar, also known as the Vulcan Security Directorate, accompanied by an army of technicians with decontamination equipment, piled into the Raphael's entrance lock.
But the most terrifying sight of all was the group's leader: A Four-star Doctor clad in the uniform of the Silver Service of Psychiatry.
"What the hell's going on here?" Bones demanded, storming up to the Silver Doctor, feeling more like strangling the man than talking to him. "Who are you? What are you doing on our ship? And why is the V'Shar involved?"
The Silver Doctor looked at Bones sourly. "This ship has been declared a Rogue, Doctor. You are now in psychiatric quarantine and will remain so until your mental states have been fully evaluated," he said. "Furthermore, we have been instructed to take Class I precautions, as you have been in contact with an unidentified pestilence."
Bones's face darkened. "On whose orders?"
The Silver Doctor virtually ignored the question. "I am Doctor Chekov. I have been appointed your counselor by the Black Doctor. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Doctor Chekov, or whatever his name was, began barking out orders to the squad. The V'shar agents scattered throughout the ship, covering all hatches and doorways. The Terran technicians went immediately to their work, using their blowers and disinfectants to drive antiseptic sprays into every nook and cranny of the ship's interior, scouring the hull outside in the rigid pattern prescribed for Rogue ships. A trio of burly V'shar men herded the doctors into the decontamination lock, stripped them of their clothes, scrubbed them down and tossed them special sterilized fatigues to wear with masks and gloves. as the Terrans started unloading their decontamination gear into the lock.
"We haven't done anything, you asses!" Christine protested. "We decontaminated this ship ourselves!"
The tallest V'shar man, apparently the lead agent, scowled at Christine. "If you have anything to say, say it to the Black Doctor, miss. This ship, and you three, are under psychiatric quarantine until the Black Doctor says otherwise, and from what I hear, he will not be saying otherwise for quite some time."
Their job done, the Terran technicians boarded the scooter and jetted back to the investigation ship, leaving the V'shar agents behind to perform their guard duties, of course. A few moments the doctors saw it returning, this time carrying just three men. In addition to the pilot and Doctor Chekov, there was a single passenger: a portly Asiatic man dressed in a black robe, horn-rimmed glasses and cowl.
The scooter snagged the Raphael's hull, and Black Doctor Blasius Chang climbed wheezing into the entrance lock, followed by Silver Doctor Chekov. He stopped halfway into the lock to catch his breath, and paused again as the lock swung closed behind him. Valeris was shocked at the physical change in the man in the few short weeks since she had last seen him. The Black Doctor's face was gray; every effort of movement brought on paroxysms of coughing. He looked sickly and tired, but his jaw was still set in angry determination.
The doctors stood at attention as he stepped into the control room, barely able to conceal their surprise at seeing him. "Well?" the Black Doctor snapped at them. "What's the matter? You act like you've seen a ghost."
"We—we'd heard that you were in the hospital, sir."
"Oh, you did, did you?" the Black Doctor snorted. "Hospital! Bah! I had to tell those nosy reporters something to take the spotlight off of me for a while. These young pups seem to think that a Black Doctor can just walk away from his duties any time he feels like it to undergo their damn hi-tech surgical procedures. And you know who's been screaming the loudest to get their hands on me. The Red Service of Surgery, by God!"
The Black Doctor glared at Valeris. "I suppose I will eventually have no choice but to give the Red Doctors their chance at me. But for right now, there are certain things which I must attend to." He looked up at the Silver Doctor. "Are you quite sure that this ship has been decontaminated?"
Doctor Chekov nodded. "Yes, sir."
"What is your opinion of the current psychological state of the crewmen?"
"I think they're lucid enough to talk to you, sir. If they become violent, just summon the V'shar agent stationed outside this room. He can administer a shot of dytrine to put them under."
The Black Doctor grunted and wheezed and settled himself down in a seat. "Now, doctors," he said to the three, "let's have your story of this affair on the planet called Ganavar, right from the beginning."
"But we sent in a full report," Bones said.
"I know that, you idiot. I have waded through your report, all three-hundred and fifty gigabytes of it, and I only wish you hadn't been so damn long-winded. Now I want to hear what happened directly from you. Start talking!"
The three doctors looked at each other. Then Christine began the story, starting with the first hesitant "greeting" that had come through to them. She told him everything that had happened with no exaggerations: their first analysis of the nature of the trouble, the biochemical and medical survey that they ran on the infected people, her own failure to diagnose the case, the incident of Blob's unexpected illness, and the strange solution that had finally come from it. As she talked the Black Doctor sat back with his eyes half closed, his face inscrutable, listening and nodding from time to time as the story dragged on.
Christine was brutally honest and fair in her account. "We were all of us stumped, until Valeris realized the significance of what had happened to Blob," she said. "Her idea of putting the being through the filter gave us our first specimen of the isolated virus, and showed us how to extract the antibody. Upon seeing what had happened with our own initial series of injections, we were really flying high, and by then we couldn't reach a Hospital Ship for any kind of help." She went on to relate Valeris's idea that the virus itself might be the intelligent being, and recounted the things that happened after Valeris went down to talk to the representative again with Blob on her shoulder.
Through it all the Black Doctor listened sourly, glancing occasionally at Valeris and saying nothing. "Is that all?" he said when Christine had finished.
"Not exactly," Christine said. "Let the record show that it was my failure in diagnosis that got us into big trouble. I don't want any misunderstanding about that. If I'd had the wit to think beyond the end of my nose, there wouldn't have been any trouble."
The Black Doctor pointed at Valeris. "So it was this one who really came up with the answers and directed the whole program on this problem?"
"Yes," Christine said firmly. "All the credit should go to her."
Something stirred in Valeris's mind and she felt Blob snuggling in tightly to her side. She could feel the cold hostility in the Black Doctor's mind, and she started to say something, but the Black Doctor cut her off. "Dr. McCoy, do you agree with Dr. Chapel about this?" he asked Bones.
"Absolutely," Bones said. "I'll back up the Blue Doctor right down the line."
The Black Doctor smiled unpleasantly and nodded. "I'm glad to hear you say that, doctors. I might also add that it is a very great relief to me to hear it from your own testimony. Because this time there should be no argument from either of you as to just who is responsible, and I'm relieved to know that I can completely exonerate you two, at any rate."
Christine Chapel's jaw went slack and she stared at the Black Doctor. Had she heard him right? "Exonerate us?" she said. "From what?"
"From the charges of incompetence, malpractice and psychological unfitness for the medical service which I will lodge against your colleague in the Red Service here," the Black Doctor said angrily. "I was confident that neither of you two could have contributed very much to this bungling mess, but it's reassuring to have your own statements of that fact on the record. They will carry more weight in a tribunal than any plea I could make on your behalf."
"A---a tribunal?!" Bones stammered. "Black Doctor, you can't mean that! This—this problem is solved. We solved it as a patrol team, all of us. We sent in a brand new medical service contract from those people...."
"Thank you for reminding me." The screen on the Black Doctor's PC Tablet turned pink as he opened the file containing the dispatch. The doctors could see the digital reproductions of their signatures at the bottom. "Fortunately—for you two—this piece of bullshit was brought to my attention at the first subspace relay station that received it. I personally accepted it and withdrew it from the circuit before it could reach Hospital Earth for filing."
As they watched him, the Black Doctor keyed in the sequence to delete the file from the circuit. The screen on his PC Tablet reverted to its usual blue background afterwards. "Well, that's that," he said slowly. "I will overlook your foolishness in trying to cloud the important issues with a so-called 'contract' to divert attention, but I'm afraid I can't pay much attention to it, nor permit it to appear in the general report. Furthermore, you three have left me no choice but to declare the Raphael a Rogue ship until a bacteriological and virological examination has been completed on both ship and crew. Dr. Valeris will, of course, have to undergo a thorough psychological evaluation by Silver Doctor Chekov. And the planet itself will be considered a galactic plague spot until proper measures have been taken to insure its decontamination."
The Black Doctor pulled up another file on his PC Tablet and turned to Valeris "As for you, young lady, the charges are clear enough. You have broken the most basic rules of good judgment and good medicine in your handling of the Ganavar affair. You let a General Practice Patrol ship approach a potentially dangerous plague spot without notifying higher authorities. You undertook a biochemical and medical survey for which you had neither the proper equipment nor the training qualifications, and you exposed your ship and colleagues to an astonishing risk by landing on such a planet. You are legally responsible for untold—possibly fatal—damage to over two hundred individuals of the race that called on you for help. You have even subjected the creature that depends upon your own race for its life and support to virtual slavery and possible destruction; and finally, you had the gall to try to cover up your idiocy with claims of arranging a medical service contract with an unsurveyed race."
The Black Doctor broke off as a V'shar agent came in the door and whispered something in his ear. Doctor Chang shook his head angrily, "Tell them I'm busy!"
"They say it's urgent, sir."
"It always is." The Black Doctor heaved to his feet. "If it weren't for this stupid bitch here, I wouldn't need to take valuable time away from my more important duties." He scowled at the Raphael's crew. "Excuse me, doctors," he said, and disappeared into the communications room.
The moment he was gone from the room, Christine and Bones were talking at once. "He can't be serious," Bones said. "He's insane! None of those charges would hold up under investigation."
"Back in the 20th century, they would've called something like this a 'frame-up,'" Christine said, her voice tight with anger. "I knew that some people on Hospital Earth were out to get you, but I don't see how a Four-star Black Doctor could be party to such a thing. Either somebody's been misinforming him, or he just doesn't understand what happened."
Valeris shook her head. "Oh, he understands, Christine. He understands because he's the one who's determined to drive me out of medicine. It's a flimsy excuse, but he's got to use it, because it's now or never. He knows that if we bring in a contract on a new planet, and it's formally ratified, we'll all get our Stars and he'd never be able to block me again. And Black Doctor Chang is going to be sure that I don't get that Star, or die trying."
"But this is so unfair," Christine protested. "He's turning our own words against you! You can bet that he'll have a survey crew down on that planet in no time, bringing home a contract just the same as the one we transmitted, and there wouldn't be any questions asked about it."
"Except that I'll be out of the service," Valeris said. "Don't worry. You'll get the credit in the long run. When the smoke clears, he'll be sure that you two are named as agents for the contract. He doesn't want to hurt you, it's me he wants."
"He won't get away with it," Bones said. "We won't let him. It's not too late to retract our stories. If he thinks he can get rid of you with something that wasn't your fault, he's going to find out that he's got to get rid of a lot more than just you."
But Valeris was shaking her head. "Not this time, Bones. This time you stay out of it."
"What do you mean, stay out of it?" Bones cried. "Hell if I'm going to stand by quietly and watch him lop off your head!"
"That's exactly what I expect you to do," Valeris said sharply. "I meant what I said. I want you to keep your mouth shut. Don't say anything more at all, just let it be."
"I can't stand by and do nothing! Valeris, for God's sake, you need help!"
"Can't you get it through your head that this time I don't want your help?" Valeris said. "Do me a favor this time. Leave me alone! Don't stick your head in the lion's mouth."
Bones just stared at the pretty Vulcan girl. "Look, Val, all I'm trying to do...."
"I know what you're trying to do," Valeris snapped, "and I want no part of it. I don't need your help, I don't even want it. Why do you have to cram it down my throat?"
There was a long silence. Then Bones spread his hands helplessly. "Okay," he said, "If that's the way you want it." He turned from Valeris, his big shoulders slumping. "I've only been trying to make up for some of the dirty breaks you've been handed since you came to Hospital Earth."
"I know that," Valeris said, "and I've appreciated it. Sometimes it's been the only thing that's kept me going. But that doesn't mean that you own me. Friendship is one thing, proprietorship is something else. I'm not your private property."
He saw the look on Valeris's face, as if she had suddenly turned and slapped him viciously across the face. "Look, I know it sounds awful, but I can't help it. I don't want to hurt you, and I don't want to change things between us, but I'm a person just like you are. I can't go on leaning on you anymore. Everybody's got to stand on his own somewhere along the road. You do, and so do I. And that goes for Christine, too."
They heard the door to the communications room shack open, and the Black Doctor was back in the room. "Am I interrupting something?" he said. He glanced sharply at the tight-lipped doctors. "The call was from the survey section," he went on blandly. "A survey team is en route to Ganavar to start gathering some useful data on the situation. But that is neither here nor there. You have heard the charges against the Red Doctor here. Is there anything any of you want to say?"
Christine and Bones looked at one another. The silence in the room was profound.
The Black Doctor turned to Valeris. "And what about you?"
"I have something to say, but I'd like to talk to you....alone."
"As you wish. You two will return to your quarters and stay there."
"The agent, too," Valeris said.
The Black Doctor's eyes glinted and met Valeris's for a moment. Then he shrugged and nodded to the agent. "Step outside, please. The Red Doctor has a private matter she wishes to discuss with me."
The black Doctor turned his attention to the open data files on his PC Tablet as Valeris stood before him with Blob sitting in the crook of her arm. From the moment that the notice of the investigation ship's approach had come to the Raphael, Valeris had known what was coming. She had been sure what the purpose of the detainment was, and who the investigator would be, yet she had not really been worried. In the back of her mind, a small, comfortable thought had been sustaining her.
It didn't really matter how hostile or angry Black Doctor Chang might be; she knew that in a last-ditch stand there was one way the Black Doctor could be dealt with.
She remembered the dramatic shift from hostility to friendliness among the Ganavarians when she had come down from the ship with Blob on her shoulder. Before then, she had never considered using her odd power to defend herself and gain an end; but since then, without even consciously bringing it to mind, she had known that the next time would be easier. If it ever came to a showdown with Black Doctor Chang, a trap from which she couldn't free herself, there was still this way. The Black Doctor would never know what hit him, she thought. It would just seem to him, suddenly, that he had been looking at things the wrong way. Who would know?
But she knew, even as the thought came to mind, that this was not so. Now, face to face with the showdown, she knew that it was no good. One person would know what had happened: herself. On Ganavar, she had convinced herself that the end justified the mean; here it was different.
For a moment, as Black Doctor Chang stared up at her through the horn-rimmed glasses, Valeris wavered. Why should she hesitate to defend herself? she thought angrily. This attack against her was false and unfair, trumped up for the sole purpose of destroying her hopes and driving her out of the Service. Why shouldn't she grasp at any means, fair or unfair, to fight it?
But she could hear the echo of Black Doctor Shah's words in her mind: I beg of you not to use it. No matter what happens, don't use it. Of course, Doctor Shah would never know, for sure, that she had broken faith---but she would know...
"Well," Black Doctor Chang was saying, "speak up. I can't waste much more time dealing with you. If you've got something to say, say it!"
Valeris sighed. She lifted Blob down and slipped her gently into her jacket pocket. "These charges against me are false," she said.
The Black Doctor shrugged. "Your own crewmates support them with their statements."
"That's not the point. They're false. You know that as well as I do. You've deliberately rigged them up to build a case against me."
The Black Doctor's face turned dark and his fingers clenched on the PC Tablet in his hand. "Are you suggesting that I have nothing better to do than to rig false charges against one probationer out of seventy-five thousand traveling the galaxy."
"I'm suggesting that we're all alone here," Valeris said. "Nobody is listening. Just for once, right now, we can be honest. We both know what you're trying to do to me. I'd just like to hear you admit it once."
"I remind you that you are addressing a Four-star Pathologist!" the Black Doctor roared.
"I am addressing a colleague," Valeris said. "And, I hope, a professional like myself." Suddenly Valeris's words were tumbling out of control, and her whole body began trembling with anger. "You've been determined from the very start that I should never complete the medical training that I began. You've tried blocking me time after time, in every way imaginable. You've almost succeeded, that's true, but you've never quite made it---until now. And now you have to make it. If that contract were to go through I'd get my Star, and there wouldn't be a damn thing you could do about it. So it's now or never if you're going to break me."
"Bullshit!" the Black Doctor stormed. "I would never lower myself to deal with your species. The charges speak for themselves."
"No, they don't. Not really. You claim I failed to notify Hospital Earth that we'd entered a plague area—but our records of our contact with Ganavar prove that we did only what any patrol ship would have done when the call came in. We didn't have enough data to know that there was a plague there, and when we at last did find the truth we could no longer make contact with Hospital Earth. You claim that I caused the death of two hundred of the natives there, but if you study our notes and records, you'll see that the mistakes we made were unavoidable. We couldn't have done anything else under the circumstances, and had we not what we did, we would have been ignoring the basic tenants of diagnosis and treatment which we've been taught. Furthermore, your charges fail to mention that by possibly killing two hundred of the Bruckians, we found a way to save two million of them from suffering and death."
The Black Doctor glared at her. "I'll see that the charges stand up."
"I'm sure you will! You can ram them through and make them count before anyone gets a chance to examine them carefully. You've got the authority to do it. And by the time an impartial magistrate could review all the records, your survey ship will have been there and gathered so much more data and screwed up the field so well that nobody will ever be sure that the charges aren't true. But you and I both know that they wouldn't really hold up under inspection. We know that they're false right down the line and that you are the one who is responsible for them."
The Black Doctor grew darker, and he trembled with rage as he drew himself to up to his full height. Valeris could feel his hatred almost like a physical blow and his voice was almost a thunderclap.
"All right," he said, "if you insist, then the charges are lies! I made them up specifically to break you, and I'll push them through even if I must jeopardize my reputation to do it. You could have bowed out gracefully at any time on the way and saved yourself dishonor and disgrace, but, no, you wouldn't do it. Now, by God, I'm going to force you to! I've worked all my life to build the reputation of Hospital Earth and of the Terrans that go out to all the planets as representatives. I've worked hard to make the Federation respect Hospital Earth and the Terrans who serve its peoples. You don't belong here with us. You forced yourself in, you're not a Terran and you don't have what it takes or know what it truly means to be a Hospital Earth physician. If you succeed, thousands of others will follow in your footsteps, whittling away at the reputation that we've worked to build, and I will not let one incompetent alien bitch pretending to be a surgeon to walk in and destroy the thing I—I....."
The Black Doctor's voice had grown shrill, almost out of control. But now suddenly he broke off, his mouth still moving, and his face went from its natural yellowish color to pale white. The finger he was pointing at Valeris wavered and fell. He clutched at his chest, his breath coming in great gasps and staggered back into the chair. "Oh--my---God," his voice croaked. "I can't breathe!"
Valeris stared at him in terror for a moment, then leaped across the room and jammed her thumb against the alarm bell.ns 184.108.40.206da2