Once more the crew of the Raphael settled down to routine, and the crisis on Gornar seemed all but forgotten.
But a change had come about in the relations between the three doctors, and most of them for the better. If Christine Chapel wasn't exactly cordial to Valeris, at least she had dropped the open antagonism that she had shown before. Evidently, Bones's angry outburst had startled Christine as if she had never really and truly considered that the big Terran might honestly be attached to his friend from Vulcan, and the Blue Doctor seemed sincere in her agreement to work with Valeris and Bones as a team.
But bit by bit Valeris could sense that the change in Christine's attitude was more than skin-deep. "I honestly think she was scared of me," Valeris said one night when she and Bones were alone. "It sounds ridiculous, but I think it's true. She pretends to be so sure of herself, but I think she's as worried about things going wrong as we are, and just won't admit it. And she really thought I was some kind of a threat when I came aboard."
"She probably had a good thorough briefing from Black Doctor Chang before she got the assignment," Bones said grimly.
"Yeah—but somehow I don't think she likes the Black Doctor any more than we do."
Well, whatever the reason, much of the tension was gone when Raphael had left the Gornar system behind. A massive weight seemed to have been lifted, and if there was not quite peace on board, there was, at least, a shaky truce. Bones and Christine were almost friendly, speaking together more often and getting to know each other better. Christine still avoided Valeris and seldom invited her into conversations, but the blatant contempt of the first few weeks on the ship now seemed somewhat tempered.
Once more Raphael's calls fell into a pattern. Landings on the annexed planets became the norm, bright spots in a lonely and nomadic existence. The calls that came in represented few real problems. The spaceship landed on one contract planet to organize a mass inoculation program against a parasitic infestation similar to malaria. They paused at another world to teach the native doctors the use of some new hi-tech surgical instruments that had been developed by Hospital Earth laboratories specifically for them. Frantic emergency calls usually proved to involve minor problems, but occasionally potentially serious situations were detected early before they could escalate into huge trouble.
And as the three doctors got used to the responsibilities of a patrol ship's rounds, and grew more confident in their ability to handle the problems forced on them, they found themselves working more and more efficiently as a team.
This was the way the General Practice Patrol was expected to function. Each doctor had unsuspected skills that came to the forefront. Nobody questioned Christine Chapel's skills as a diagnostician, but it seemed uncanny to Valeris the way the slender, golden-haired female Terran could listen carefully to a medical problem of an alien race on a strange planet, and then seem to know exactly which questions to ask to draw out the significant information about the situation. Bones wasn't nearly as quick and clever as Christine; he needed more time to ponder medical treatment options, and he would often spend endless hours poring over the data E-tapes before deciding what to do in a specific case---but he always seemed to come up with an answer, and his answers usually worked. Above all, Bones's relations with the bizarre creatures they encountered were invariably good; the aliens seemed to like him and would follow his instructions to the absolute letter.
Valeris, too, had opportunities to demonstrate that her surgical skill and judgment were not universally faulty despite the troubles on Gornar. Time after time she succeeded in nearly impossible surgical cases in which calling for help was not an option, and little by little she could sense Christine's growing confidence in her abilities, grudging as that might be.
Valeris had sufficient time to mull over the thing that had happened on Gornar and to think about the interview with Black Doctor Chang afterward. She knew she was glad that Bones had intervened even on the basis of a lie; until Bones had spoken up, Valeris was certain that the Black Doctor fully intended to use the incident as an excuse to kick her out of the General Practice Patrol. There was no question in her mind that the Black Doctor's charges had been exaggerated into a trumped-up case against her, and there was no question that Bones' insistence on taking the blame had saved her; she could not help but be thankful.
And yet, there was something about it that disturbed Valeris, chipping away persistently at her mind. She couldn't throw off the feeling that her own acceptance of Bones's help had been uncalled for.
Part of it, she knew, was her racial, inbred loathing for falsehood. Fair or not, Valeris had always hated lying. Among her people, the truth might be bent occasionally, but outright lying was considered an unforgivable sin, and there was a Vulcan saying that "lying lips win no friends." Vulcan traders were known throughout the Galaxy as much for their rigid adherence to their word as they were for the hard bargains they drove. Valeris had been enormously confused during her first months on Hospital Earth by the way Terrans seemed to accept falsehoods as part of their normal lives, unconcerned about it as long as those falsehoods couldn't be proven.
But something else about Bones' defense of her bugged Valeris far more than the falsehood—something that had vaguely disturbed her ever since she had known the big Terran and that now seemed to elude her every time she tried to pinpoint it. Lying in her bunk during a sleep break, Valeris remembered vividly the first time she had met Bones, early in the second year of medical school. Valeris had nearly despaired by then of making friends with her hostile and resentful classmates and had begun increasingly to avoid contact with them, building up a defensive shell and relying solely on Blob for company and comfort. Then Bones had found her eating lunch alone in the medical school lounge one day and plopped down in the seat beside her and began talking as if Valeris were just another classmate. Bones's open friendliness had been like a spring breeze to Valeris who was desperately lonely on this planet of strangers; their friendship had grown rapidly, and gradually others in the class had begun to thaw enough at least to be polite when Valeris was around. Valeris had sensed that this change of heart was because of Bones and not because of her, yet she had welcomed it as a change from the previously intolerable coldness, even though it left her feeling vaguely uneasy. Bones was well-liked by the others in the class; Valeris had been grateful more than once when Bones had risen up in hot defense of the Vulcan's right to be studying medicine among Terrans in the school on Hospital Earth.
But that had been in medical school, among classmates. Somehow that had been different from the incident that occurred on Gornar, and Valeris's uneasiness grew stronger than ever the more she thought about it. Talking to Bones about it was no help; Bones just grinned and told her to forget it, but even in the rush of shipboard activity, it simply would not be forgotten.
One minor matter also helped to ease the tension between the doctors as they made their daily rounds. Bones brought a PC tablet in to Valeris one day, grinning happily. "This is from the Interplanetary News Network," he said. "Thought it might cheer you up."
It was a brief news note, listed under "incidental items." "The Black Service of Pathology," it said, "has announced that Black Doctor Blasius Chang will admit himself to Hospital Montreal within the next week for vascular regeneration surgery. In keeping with the usual Hospital Earth administrative policy, the Four-star Black Doctor will undergo a total cardiac transplant to prohibit the Medical education administrator's progressively debilitating heart condition." The note went on to name the surgeons who would perform the operation.
Valeris smiled and handed back the dispatch. "I hope it improves his disposition," she said, "even if it likely gives him another fifty years of active life."
"Well, at least it will keep him out of our way for a while," Bones said. "He won't have time to keep us under too close scrutiny."
Which, Valeris was ashamed to admit, did not make her terribly sad.
Shipboard rounds kept all three doctors busy. Often, with contact landings, calls, and studying, it seemed only a brief time from sleep break to sleep break, but still, they had some time for minor luxuries. Valeris was almost constantly shivering, with the ship kept at a temperature that was comfortable for Bones and Christine; she missed the desert heat of her home planet, and sometimes it seemed that she was chilled all the way down to her skeleton. With a bit of homebrew plumbing and ingenuity, she managed to convert one of the ship's antiseptic shower units into a steam bath. Once or twice each day she would retire for a blissful half hour warming herself up to Vulcan normal temperatures.
Blob also became a part of the shipboard routine. Once he got accustomed to Bones and Christine and the surroundings aboard the ship, the little creature grew bored sitting on Valeris's shoulder and wanted to be in the middle of things. Since the early tension had eased, he was willing to be apart from his mistress from time to time, so Valeris and Bones built him a small platform that hung from the ceiling of the control room. There Blob would sit and swing by the hour, blinking happily at the activity going on all around him.
But, despite the apparent atmosphere of peace and tolerance, there was still an undercurrent of tension aboard the Raphael which flared up from time to time when it was least expected between Valeris and Chrstine. It was on one such occasion that a major crisis almost exploded, and once again Blob was the focus of the bedlam.
Valeris knew that disaster had struck at the very moment it happened, but she could not tell exactly what was wrong. All she knew was that something awful had happened to Blob.
There was a small sound-proof cubicle in the computer room, with a chair, desk, and an E-reader for the doctors when they had odd moments to spend reading up on recent medical bulletins or reviewing their E-texts. Valeris spent more time here than the other two; the temperature of the room could be adjusted, and she had developed a certain fondness for the place with its warm gray walls and its ambient relaxing lighting. Here on the E-tapes were things that she could deal with, things that she could understand. If a problem here stumped her, she could study it out until she had mastered it. The hours she spent here were a soothing relief from the confusing complexities of getting along with Christine and Bones.
These long study periods were boring for Blob who wasn't much interested in the oxygen-exchange mechanism of the wild ants of Creton III. Frequently Valeris would leave him to swing on his platform or explore the control cabin while she spent an hour, sometimes two, at the E-reader. Today Valeris had been working for over one hour, deeply immersed in a review of the intermediary metabolism of negine-breathing mammals, when something abruptly wrenched her attention from the E-tape.
It was as if a light had flickered and died in her mind, or a door slammed shut. There was no sound, no warning; yet, suddenly, she felt fearful, frighteningly alone, as though in a split-second something within her had been ripped away. She sat bolt upright, staring, and she felt her skin crawl and her fingers tremble as she listened, trying to identify the source of the trouble.
And then, almost by instinct, she knew what was wrong. She sprang to her feet, ripped open the door to the cubicle, and dashed down the hallway toward the control room. "Blob!" she shouted. "Blob, where are you?"
Bones and Christine were both at the control panel dictating records for filing. They looked up in surprise as the Red Doctor burst into the room. Blob's platform was hanging empty, gently swaying back and forth. Valeris peered frantically around the room, but the small pink creature was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is he?" she demanded. "What happened to Blob?"
Christine shrugged her broad shoulders in disgust. "Should be on his perch."
"He's not! Where is he?"
Christine blinked at the empty perch. "Funny, I could've sworn I saw him there just a minute ago."
"Well, he's not there now, and something's wrong!" In a panic, Valeris started searching the room, knocking over stools, scattering ROM discs, flash drives and piles of paper, peering into every corner where Blob might be hiding
For a moment the others sat frozen, watching her. Then Bones jumped to his feet. "Cool it, Val! He probably just wandered off for a minute. He does sometimes."
"No, it's something worse than that." Valeris was almost choking on the words. "Something terrible has happened. I know it."
Christine Chapel tossed the E-corder down in disgust. "You and your godforsaken piece of protoplasm!" she said. "I knew we shouldn't have kept him on board."
Valeris stared at Christine. Suddenly all the anger and bitterness of the past few weeks could no longer be held in check. Without warning, she lunged at the Blue Doctor's throat. "Where is he?" she cried. "What have you done with him? What have you done to Blob? You damn well did something to him! You've hated him every minute just like you hate me, only he's easier to pick on. Now you tell me where he is? What the hell you've done to him?"
Christine staggered back, trying to push the panic-stricken Vulcan girl away. "Lemme go, dammit! I'm innocent!"
"You are not! Where is he?"
"I don't know!" Christine struggled to break free, but there was powerful strength in Valeris's fingers, a trait of her people. "I said he was here just a minute ago."
Valeris felt a hand grip her collar then, and Bones was prying them apart like two cats in a fight. "Cut it out!" he roared, holding them both at arm's length. "Chill out, Val! Christine didn't do anything to Blob, he's been sitting here with me ever since you went back to the cubicle. He hasn't even budged."
"Well, he's gone," Valeris panted. "Something happened to him. I know it."
"You don't know that anything's happened to him."
"Yes, I do. I---feel it."
"All right, then let's go hunt him up," Bones said. "He's got to be somewhere on the ship. If he's in trouble, we won't help him by fighting each other."
Bones let go, and Christine brushed off her shirt, her face very white. "I saw him just a little while ago," he said. "He was sitting up on that silly perch watching us, then swinging back and forth and then swinging over to that cabinet and back."
"Well, let's get started looking," Bones said.
They fanned out, with Christine still muttering to herself, and searched the control room inch by inch. There was no sign of Blob. Valeris had control of herself now, but she searched with frantic intensity. "He's not in here," she said at last, "he must have gone out somewhere."
"There's only one door open," Bones said. "The one you just came through, from the rear corridor. Val, you search the computer room. Christine, check the lab and I'll go back to the reactors."
They began searching the compartments just off the rear corridor. For ten minutes there was no sound in the ship but the occasional clanging of a hatch, the grate of a desk drawer, and the bang of a cabinet door. Valeris worked through the maze of cubby holes in the computer room, her despair growing exponentially. The scary sense of loneliness and loss in her mind was overwhelming; she was almost physically ill. The warm, comfy feeling of contact that she'd always had before with Blob was gone. As the minutes passed, despair gave way to a bottomless pit of sadness.
Then Christine gave a hoarse shriek from the lab. Valeris tripped and stumbled in her haste to get down the corridor, nearly colliding with Bones at the lab door.
"Good Lord!" Christine wailed. "He's gotten into the glaumaline!"
She lifted one of the glass beakers down from the shelf to the workbench. It was obvious what had happened: Blob had gone exploring and had found the laboratory a fascinating place. Several of the reagent's bottles had been knocked over as if he'd been sampling them. The glass lid to the beaker of glaumaline which was used for tissue cultures had been pushed aside just enough to admit the little being's two-inch girth. Now Blob lay in the bottom of the beaker, submerged in glaumaline, a formless, shapeless blob of obscene gray jelly.
"Glaumaline? Are you sure?" Valeris asked.
Christine poured off the fluid, and the harsh, unbearable smell of the fluid that filled the room answered the question. "Forget it, Valeris," she said, almost gently. "That stuff breaks down the molecular structure of proteins, and that's about all he was. I'm so sorry—I was beginning to like the little prick, even if he did get on my nerves. But he was unlucky enough to pick the one thing to fall into that could kill him. Now, if he had some way to set up a defensive barrier...."
Valeris snatched up the beaker. "Get me some saline," she said tightly. "And some sporonol. Stat!."
Christine pulled out two jugs and poured their contents into an empty beaker. Valeris popped the tiny limp form into the beaker and started to massage it. Layers of damaged tissue peeled off in her hand, but she went on massaging and changing the solutions, first saline, then sporonol. "Now, I'll need some sponges and a 4X4 blade."
Christine brought them in. Carefully Valeris began stripping away the damaged outer layers. Christine and Bones watched; then Christine said, "Hey, I see a little bit of pink in the middle."
Slowly the pale pink in the middle grew ruddier. Valeris switched solutions again, then sank down on a stool. "Prognosis: good," she said. "He's got enormous regenerative powers so long as any piece of him is left." She looked up at Christine who was still watching the being in the beaker almost solicitously. "I guess I made a compete ass of myself back there when I jumped you."
Christine's face hardened, as if she had been caught off guard. "You can say that again, girl."
"I'm sorry! I wasn't thinking straight. It's the first time I've ever been—separated from him."
"I still say he doesn't belong aboard," Christine said. "This is a medical ship, not a pet shop. And don't you ever----ever----touch me again, hear?"
"I said I was sorry," Valeris said.
"No," Christine said, "that doesn't fix it."
She gave Blob one last glance, and then headed back to the control room.684Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡIIo32Nzd0P
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Blob recovered, a much abashed and subdued Blob, clinging timorously to Valeris's shoulder and refusing to budge for three days, but apparently basically unharmed by his inadvertent swim in the lethal glaumaline bath. Presently he seemed to forget the experience altogether, and once again took his perch on the platform in the control room.
But Valeris didn't forget. She said little to nothing to Bones and Christine, but the incident had left her seriously shaken. For as long as she could remember, she had always had Blob close at hand. She had never before in her life experienced the awful feeling of emptiness and desertion, the nearly paralyzing fear and hopelessness that she had felt when Blob had lost contact with her. It'd seemed as if a vital part of her had suddenly been ripped away, and the memory of the panic that followed sent chills down her back and woke her up trembling from her sleep. She was ashamed of her uncalled-for attack on Christine, yet even this paled before the powerful fear that had been driving her.
Happily, the Blue Doctor chose to let the matter stay right where it was. If anything, she seemed more willing than before to be friendly. For the first time she seemed to take an active interest in Blob, "chatting" with him when she thought no one was around and bringing him occasional scraps of food after meals were over.
Once more life on the Raphael settled back to routine, only to have it shattered by an incident of a very different nature. It was just after they had left a small planet in the Leffer system, one of the routine check-in points, that they made contact with the Vulcan trading ship.
Valeris recognized the ship's design and insignia even before the signals came in and could barely contain her excitement. She had not seen a fellow countryman for years except for an occasional boring luncheon with the Vulcan ambassador to Hospital Earth during her medical school days. The thought of walking the corridors of a Vulcan trading ship again brought an overwhelming wave of homesickness. She was so excited she could barely wait for Bones to complete the radio-sighting formalities. "What ship is she?" she wanted to know. "What house?"
Bones handed her the message transcript. "It's the D'Vahl," he said. "Flagship of the Nukton trading fleet. They're asking permission to approach us."
Valeris let out a whoop. "Then it's a space trader and a big one. You've never seen anything like a Vulcan trading ship before."
Christine joined them, staring at the message transcript. "A Nukton ship! Send them the word, Christine, and be quick, before they get disgusted and move on."
Christine sent out the approach authorization, and they watched with growing excitement as the great trading vessel began its close-approach maneuvers.
The name of the house of Nukton was famous throughout the galaxy. It was one of the oldest and largest of the great trading firms that had boosted Vulcan to its high position of leadership in the Federation, and the Nukton ships had penetrated to every corner of the galaxy, to every known planet harboring an intelligent life-form.
Bones and Christine had seen the multitudes of exotic products in the Hospital Earth stores that came from the gargantuan Vulcan ships on their frequent visits. But this wasn't just any planetary trader loaded with a few items for a single planet. The Vulcan space traders roamed from star system to star system; their holds filled with treasures beyond imagination. Such ships as these might be away from Vulcan for decades at a time, tempting any ship they met with the magnificent variety of wares they carried.
Slowly the trader approached, and Valeris took the speaker, addressing the commander of the D'Vahl in Vulcan. "We are the General Practice Patrol Ship Raphael," she said, "out of Hospital Earth with three physicians aboard, including a countryman of yours."
"Valeris, is that you?" the reply came back. "By the Ballad of Beta-2! We'd heard that there was now a Vulcan physician and couldn't believe our ears. Come aboard, all of you, you'll be welcome. We'll dispatch a lifeboat!"
The D'Vahl was near now, a great gleaming ship with the sign of the house of Nukton emblazoned upon her hull. A lifeboat sprang from a launching rack and speared across to the Raphael. Moments later the three doctors were climbing into the sleek little ship and jetting across the emptiness of space to the gargantuan Vulcan ship.
It was just like stepping from a jungle outpost village into a magnificent, glittering city. The Vulcan ship was a huge transport supporting a crew of twenty million, and its wealth and luxury took the doctors' breath away. All of the cabins and lounges were paneled with expensive fabrics and rare woods, the furniture inlaid with precious metals. Down the long corridors goods of the traders were laid out in resplendent display, surpassing even the richest show cases in the shops on Hospital Earth.
They received a royal welcome from the master trader of the D'Vahl, an aged, smiling Vulcan with a pink ball of slime on his shoulder that could have been Blob's twin brother (or sister). He bowed low to Bones and Christine, leading them into the reception lounge where a great table was laid out with foods and pastries of all kinds. Then he turned to Valeris and embraced her like a long-lost sister. "Your father Straal has long been an honored friend of the house of Nadok, thus anyone of the house of Straal is the same as my own daughter and my daughter's son! But this collar! This cuff! Is it really possible that a woman of Vulcan has become a physician of Hospital Earth?"
Valeris touched Blob to the master trader's slime ball in the ancient Vulcan greeting. "Not only is it possible, but it's also true," she said. "I studied there. I am the Red Doctor on this patrol ship."
"Ah, splendid," the master trader said. "I can think of no better way to draw our two planets together, can you? Come now, look upon what we have in our storerooms, feast your eyes upon the wonders we carry. For all of you, a thousand delights are to be found here."
Christine hesitated as the master trader led them back toward the display corridors. "We'd be glad to see the ship, but you should know that patrol ship physicians have little money to spend."
"Money? Who spoke of money?" the master trader cried. "Did I? Come and look! Money is nothing. We Vulcans are not mere money-changers. Look and enjoy; if there is something that catches your eye, something that would fulfill your heart's desire, it will be yours." He gave Valeris a smile and a sly wink. "Surely our sister here has told you many times of the beauties to be seen in a space trader, and terms can be arranged that will make any small purchase a painless pleasure."
He led them off, like a head of state conducting visiting dignitaries on a tour, with a retinue of Vulcan underlings trailing behind them. For two surreal hours, they wandered the corridors of the great ship, staring lustily at the dazzling displays. They had been away from Hospital Earth and its shops and stores for months; now it seemed they were walking through an incredible treasure trove stocked with everything that they could possibly have wanted.
For Christine, there was a dress uniform, specially tailored for a physician in the Blue Service of Diagnosis, the insignia woven into the cloth with gold and chrononium thread. With a heavy heart, she turned away from it, for it was a luxury she could never dream of affording. For Bones, who had been muttering for weeks about getting out of shape in the ship's sedentary life, there was a set of barbells and gymnasium equipment cleverly designed to collapse into a unit the size of a bread box, yet opening out into a state-of-the-art gym. Valeris's eyes glittered at the new sets of surgical instruments, designed to the most rigid Hospital Earth standards, which appeared almost without her request to see them. There were clothes and games, precious stones and exotic rings, watches set with Draxxian dreamer-stones, and boots inlaid with chronze.
They made their way through the corridors, reluctant to leave on display for the next. Whenever something caught their eyes, the master trader snapped his fingers excitedly, and the item was unobtrusively made note of down by one of the underlings. Finally, exhausted and glutted just from looking, they turned back toward the lobby.
"Everything we've seen is beautiful," Bones said wistfully, "but----we just can't. Still, you were kind to take your time—"
"Time? I have nothing but time." The master trader smiled again at Valeris. "And there is an old Vulcan proverb that to the wise man 'impossible' has no meaning. You will see!"
They walked out into the lounge, and the doctors nearly fainted in shock. Laid out before them were all of the items that had captured their interest earlier.
"Oh, no, no way," Christine said staring at the dress uniform. "We can't possibly buy these things, it'd take our salaries for twenty years to pay for them."
"We have not mentioned price even once!" the master trader protested. "You are the crewmates of a fellow Vulcan! We would not dare set prices that we would normally set for such trifles like these. Are you worried about terms? Think nothing of them. Just take the goods aboard your ship----they are already yours, in fact. We have drawn up contracts for you that require no payment whatsoever for five years, and then payments of only fifty percent of the retail value for each successive year. And for each of you, with the compliments of the house of Nadok a special gift at no charge."
He placed in Bones's hands a small box with the lid tipped back. Against a black velvet lining lay a silver star, and the official insignia of a Star Physician in the Blue Service. "Now, you cannot wear it at this time," the master trader said. "But you will need it one day."
Christine blinked at the jewel-like star. "You're very kind," she said. "I—I mean perhaps—" She looked at Bones, and then at the display of goods on the table. "Perhaps there are---some----things—"
Already two of the Vulcan crewmen were opening the lock to the lifeboat, preparing to move the goods aboard. Then Valeris spoke up sharply. "Wait a minute!" she cried.
"And for you, young lady," the master trader continued, turning to Valeris so smoothly that there seemed to be no break in his voice at all, "as one of our own race, and an honored daughter of Straal, who has been kind to the house of Nadok for many years, I have a gift like no other. Surely your crewmates would not object to a special gift at my personal expense, hm?"
The master trader lifted a scarf from the table, revealing the magnificent set of surgical instruments, neatly displayed in a velvet-lined carrying case. The master trader took it up from the table and thrust it into Valeris's hands. "It is yours, my pretty. And for this, there will be no contract."
Valeris stared down at the instruments. They were beautiful. She longed just to touch them, to hold them in her hands, but she shook her head and set the case back on the table. She looked up at Bones and Christine. "What you guys don't know is that the prices on these things are four times what they should be, and the deferred-payment contracts he wants you to sign will allow as much as 24% interest on the unpaid balance, with no closing-out clause. When all's said and done, you'll end up paying many times the stated price for the goods before the contract is closed. Hey, go ahead and sign if you want, but, I promise you, you'll be sorry."
The Vulcan master trader stared at her and then shook his head, laughing. "She jests, of course," he said. "Just compare these prices on any planet and you will see their fairness. Here, read the contracts, see what they say and decide for yourselves." He held out a sheaf of papers.
"The contracts might sound good," Valeris said, "but I'm telling you what they really say."
Christine looked stricken. "Aw, c'mon, Valeris. Just one or two things—?"
Bones shook his head. "Val knows what she's talking about. I think we'd better not buy anything off them."
The Vulcan master trader turned to Valeris angrily. "You dare call me a liar?! There is nothing false in these contracts!"
"I know that, master trader. But I just can't see them getting gypped with their eyes closed, that's all. Your contracts are legal enough, but the prices and terms are tantamount to what the humans call 'highway robbery,' and you know it!"
The master trader glared at her for a moment. Then he turned away scornfully. "It's true then," he said. "You really have thrown in your lot with these pill-rollers, these assholes from Earth who can't even wipe their noses without losing in a trade." He signaled the lifeboat pilot. "Return them to their ship and be done with it, C'tonn. We have better things to do than deal with traitors."
The return trip to Raphael was made in total silence. Valeris could sense the pilot's scorn as he dropped them off at their entrance lock, and dashed back to the D'Vahl with the lifeboat. Gloomily Christine and Bones followed Valeris into the control room, a drab little cubby-hole compared to the D'Vahl's luxurious lounge.
"It was fun while it lasted," Christine said finally, looking up at Dal. "But the way that son of a bitch jumped down your throat, I wish we'd never gone."
"So do I," Valeris said. "The master trader thought he saw a perfect setup. He believed you wouldn't question the contracts if I supported him personally."
"So why didn't you?"
Valeris looked at the Blue Doctor. "Because I don't like people who give away surgical sets," she said. "Remember, I'm not a Vulcan trader. I'm a doctor from Hospital Earth."
Moments later, the gargantuan Vulcan ship was gone, and the red light was blinking on the call board. Bones proceeded to trace the call while Christine went back to work on the daily log book and Valeris set the table for dinner. The pleasant dreams were over; they were back in the role of patrol ship doctors once again.
Christine and Valeris were finishing dinner when Bones came back with a puzzled frown on his face. "I finally traced that call---or I think I did. What do either of you girls know about a star called 42 Messler?"
"Messler?!" Christine said. "That's way out in the boonies, and not even on the list of contracts. What's the trouble?"
"I don't know," Bones said. "Hell, I don't even know if it is a call. Come on upfront and tell me what you think."ns 126.96.36.199da2