It was quite a long walk from the students' barracks to the pathology sector where Black Doctor Shah lived, so Valeris decided against going to the barracks first. It was way past midnight, and even though the message had said "regardless of hour," Valeris shrank from the thought of waking up a physician of the Black Service at 2:00 in the morning. Her arrival at Hospital San Francisco was later than she'd expected it to be, and quite possibly Black Doctor Shah would be retiring. It seemed best to go there without delay.
But one thing took priority. She found a quiet spot in the waiting room near the subway entrance and dug into her purse for the processed cracker and the canteen of water she had there. She broke off a piece of the cracker and held it up for Blob to see.
Blob wriggled down onto her hand, and a tiny mouth appeared just below the shoe-button eyes. Millimeter by millimeter Valeris fed her friend the cracker, with squirts of water in between bites. Finally, when the cracker was gone, Valeris squirted the rest of the water into Blob's mouth and rubbed him between the eyes. "Feeling better now?" she asked.
The creature went through the usual motions of understanding; he wriggled in Valeris's slender hand and blinked his eyes sleepily. "All right, then," Valeris said. "Good night."
Valeris started to tuck him back into her purse, but Blob abruptly sprouted a pair of legs and began struggling fiercely to get out again. Valeris grinned, replacing the little being in the crook of her arm. "That bad, huh? Okay, buddy. If you want to watch, I'm fine with that."
She found a map of the city at the subway entrance, and carefully studied it. Just like other hospital cities on Earth, San Francisco was primarily a center for patient care and treatment rather than a supply and/or administrative center. Here in San Francisco special facilities existed for the care of the sentient aquatic races that needed specialized hospital care. The depths of San Francisco Bay served as a vast submarine ward system where beings that normally lived in salt-water oceans on their home planets could be well cared for, and the specialists who worked with aquatic races had facilities here for research and teaching in their specialty. The dry-land sectors of the hospital were organized to assist the aquatic wards; the surgery suites, the labs, the pharmacies and living quarters were all arranged on the periphery of the salt-water basin, and acceleratubes carried medical workers, orderlies, nurses and physicians to the widespread subdivisions of the hospital city.
The pathology sector lay to the north of the city, and Black Doctor Shah was the chief pathologist of Hospital San Francisco. Valeris found a northbound acceleratube, climbed into a vacant capsule, and pressed the buttons for the pathology sector. Presently the capsule was shifted automatically into the pressure tube that would carry her thirty miles north to her destination.
It was the first time Valeris had ever visited a Black Doctor in his quarters, and the idea made her a trifle nervous. Of all the medical services on Hospital Earth, none had the power and prestige of the Black Service of Pathology. Traditionally in Terran medicine, the pathologists had always occupied a position of power and discipline. The autopsy rooms had always been the "Temples of Truth" where the final, indisputable answers in medicine were ultimately found, and for centuries pathologists had been the judges and juries of the medical profession.
And when Earth had become Hospital Earth, with status as a probationary member of the Federation of Planets, it was only natural that the Black Service of Pathology would become the governors and lawmakers, regimenting every aspect of the medical services provided by Earth physicians.
Valeris knew that the medical praesidium, which would be reviewing her application in just a few hours, was composed of physicians from all the services—the Green Service of Medicine, the Blue Service of Diagnosis, the Red Service of Surgery, as well as the Backup Services—but it was the Black Doctors who sat on the council that would have the last word, the final veto power.
But then, why did Black Doctor Shah want to see her? Was there special news for her, word perhaps that her assignment had come through after all, that the interview tomorrow would not be held? No, that didn't make sense. If that were the case, Doctor Shah would have said so, and instructed her to report to a ship. More likely, she thought, the Black Doctor wanted to see her just to soften the blow, to help her face the decision that seemed inevitable..
She left the acceleratube and boarded the taxi that wound its way through the corridors of the pathology sector and into the silent, spartan quarters of the resident pathologists. She found the proper concourse, and moments later she was pressing his thumb against the biometric ID plate outside the Black Doctor's personal quarters.
Black Doctor Haroon Shah looked older now than when Valeris had seen him last. HIs silvery gray hair was thinning, and there were tired lines around his mouth and eyes that Valeris didn't remember from before. The old man's body seemed more wispy and frail than ever, and the black cloak across his shoulders rustled as he led Valeris back into a book-lined study.
The Black Doctor had not yet gone to bed. On a desk in the corner of the study several books lay open, and the screen of the transparent recorder glowed an ambient green in the semidarkness. "I knew you would get the message when you arrived," he said as he took Valeris's purse, "and I thought you might be later than you planned. A good trip, I assume. And your friend here? He enjoys shuttle travel?" He smiled and stroked Blob with a gnarled brown finger. "I suppose you wonder why I wanted to see you."
Valeris nodded slowly. "About the interview tomorrow?"
"Yes. The interview." The Black Doctor made a sour face and shook his head. "A bad business for you, that interview. How are you feeling about it?"
Valeris spread her hands helplessly. As usual, the Black Doctor's questions cut through the trimming to the heart of the matter. They were always tough questions to answer.
"I suppose it's something that's necessary," she said finally.
"Oh?" the Black Doctor frowned. "But why necessary for you if not for the others? How many were there in your class, including all the services? Three hundred? And out of the three hundred only one was refused assignment." He looked up sharply at Valeris, his black-pupiled yellowish eyes very alert in his aged face. "Is that correct?"
"Do you really feel it's merely standard procedure that your application is being challenged?"
"Of course not!"
"How do you feel about it, Valeris? Angry, maybe?"
Valeris squirmed. "Yes, sir. You might say that."
"Perhaps even bitter," the Black Doctor said.
"My work was as good as anyone else in my class," Valeris said hotly. "I did my part as well as anyone could. I didn't let up once all the way through. Bitter! Wouldn't you feel bitter?"
The Black Doctor nodded slowly. "I most assuredly would," he said, sinking down into the chair behind the desk with a sigh. "As a matter of fact, I do feel a little bitter about it, even though I knew it would come to this in the end. I can't blame you for your feelings." He took a deep breath. "I wish I could promise you that everything would be all right tomorrow, but I'm afraid I can't. The praesidium has a legal right to review your qualifications, and it holds the power to assign you to a patrol ship on the spot, if it sees fit. Conceivably, a Black Doctor might force the praesidium's approval, if he were the only representative of the Black Service there. But I will not be the only Black Doctor on the praesidium tomorrow."
"I know that," Valeris said.
Doctor Shah looked up at Valeris for a long moment. "Why do you want to be a doctor in the first place, Valeris? This isn't the calling of your people. You must be the one Vulcan out of millions with the patience and peculiar mental makeup to allow you to master the scientific disciplines involved in studying medicine. Either you are different from the rest of your people---which I doubt---or else you are driven to force yourself into a pattern alien to your nature for very compelling reasons. What are they? Why do you want medicine?"
It was the hardest question of all, the question Valeris had dreaded. She knew the answer, just as she had known for most of her life that she wanted to be a doctor above all else. But she had never found a way to put the reasons into words. "I can't say," she said slowly. "I know, but I can't express it, and whenever I try, it just sounds silly."
"Then your reasons constitute a breach of common sense," the old man said gently.
"They do not! At least to me, they don't," Valeris said. "I've always wanted to be a doctor. There's nothing else I want to do. To work at home, among my people."
"There was a plague on Vulcan, wasn't there?" Doctor Shah said. "A cyclic thing that came back again and again. The cycle was broken just a few years ago, when the virus that caused it was finally isolated and destroyed."
"By the physicians of Hospital Earth," Valeris said.
"It's happened again and again," the Black Doctor said. "We've seen the same pattern repeated a thousand times across the galaxy, and it has always puzzled us, just a little." He smiled. "You see, our knowledge and understanding of the life sciences here on Earth have always grown hand in hand with the physical sciences. We had always assumed the same thing would happen on any planet where a race has developed intelligence and scientific methods of study. We were wrong, of course, which is the reason for the existence of Hospital Earth and her physicians today, but it still amazes us that with all the technology and civilization in the galaxy. We Terrans are the only people yet discovered who have developed a broad knowledge of the process of life, sickness, and death."
The old man looked up at his visitor, and Valeris felt his black-pupiled eyes searching her face.
"How badly do you want to be a doctor, Valeris?"
"More than anything else in the universe," Valeris said.
"Would you do anything to achieve your goal?"
Valeris hesitated, and stroked Blob's head gently. "Well....almost anything."
The Black Doctor nodded. "Which brings us now to the reason I had to see you before this interview, my dear. I know you've played the game straight right from the beginning, up to this point. I beg you now not to do the thing that you are obviously thinking of doing."
For a moment Valeris just stared at the little old man in black, and felt goosebumps (or, at least, the Vulcan equivalent of goosebumps) rise up on her skin. Panic flooded her mind. He knows! she thought frantically. He must be a telepath! But she thrust the idea away. There was no way that the Black Doctor could know. No race of beings in the galaxy had that ability. Yet there was no doubt that Black Doctor Shah knew what Valeris had been thinking, just as surely as if she had said it aloud.
Dal shook her head helplessly. "I ….. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do," Doctor Shah said. "You must trust me, Valeris. This is no time to lie to me. The thing that you were planning to do at the interview would be disastrous, even if it won you an assignment. It would be unethical and dishonest."
He does know! Valeris thought. But how? I didn't tell him, or give him a hint. She felt Blob give a frightened shiver on her arm, and then words were tumbling out of her mouth. "I still don't know what you're talking about, there wasn't anything I was thinking of. What could I do? The praesidium will either assign me to a ship or they won't, and if they won't, there's certainly nothing I can do about it. I'll...."
"Stop it!" Black Doctor Shah held up his hand. "Naturally you would defend yourself," he said. "I can't blame you for that, and this is clearly an inexcusable breach of diplomacy to mention it even to you, but you leave me no choice. As you know, Valeris, we have been studying and observing your people very carefully over the past two hundred years. It is no freak of nature that you have such a warm attachment to your little pink friend here, and it is no freak of nature that wherever a Vulcan is found, his Blob is with him, correct? And it is no freak of nature that your people are such excellent tradesmen, that you are so remarkably skillful in driving bargains favorable to yourselves ... that you are in fact the most powerful single race of beings in all the Federation of Planets."
The old man walked to the bookshelves behind him and brought down a thick spiral-bound manuscript. He handed it across the desk as Valeris watched him. "You may read this if you like, at your leisure. Don't worry, it's not for publication, merely a private study which I have never mentioned to anyone, but the pattern is unmistakable. This bizarre talent of your people is hard to describe: not telepathy in the conventional sense, but an ability to create the emotional responses in others that will be most favorable to you. Just what part your Blobs play in this ability of your people I do not know, but I now believe that without them you would not have it."
He smiled at Valeris's stricken face. "Yes, I know. It's a forbidden topic. But, let's face it, it's true. You know right now that if you wanted to you could virtually paralyze me with fright, render me helpless to do anything but stand here and shiver, couldn't you? Or if I were hostile to your wishes, you could force me to sympathize with you and like you enormously, until I was ready to agree to anything you wanted—"
"No!" Valeris broke in. "You---you don't understand! I've never done it, not once since I came to Hospital Earth."
"I know that. I've been watching you."
"I don't dare do it!."
"Not even at the praesidium interview?"
"Then let me have Blob now. He is the key to this special talent of your people. Give him to me now, and face the praesidium without him."
Valeris drew back, trembling, trying to fight down panic. She brought her hand around to the soft, squishy skin little pink blob. "I ... can't," she said weakly.
"It might be your only chance to be assigned to a patrol ship."
Valeris hesitated, then shook her head. "And then again, maybe not. Look, I won't do what you're saying, I promise."
For a long moment Black Doctor Shah stared at her. Then he smiled. "Can I trust you?"
"Then I wish you good luck. I will do what I can at the interview. But now there is a bed for you here. You must sleep now so you can present your best appearance."ns 184.108.40.206da2