Star Surgeon



"I think," Black Doctor Hugo Tanner said ominously, "that an explanation is in order. I would now like to hear it. And believe me, gentlemen, it had better be a very sensible explanation, too."

The pathologist was sitting in the control room of the Lancet, his glasses slightly askew on his florid face. He had climbed through the entrance lock ten minutes before, shaking snow off his cloak and wheezing like a boiler about to explode; now he faced the patrol ship's crew like a small but ominous black thundercloud. Across the room, Jack Alvarez was staring through the viewscreen at the blizzard howling across the landing field below, a small satisfied smile on his face, while Tiger sulked with his hands jammed into his trousers. Dal sat by himself feeling very much alone, with Fuzzy peering discreetly out of his jacket pocket.

He knew the Black Doctor was speaking to him, but he didn't try to reply. He had known from the moment the surgeon came out of the operating room that he was in trouble. It was just a matter of time before he would have to answer for his decision here, and it was even something of a relief that the moment came sooner rather than later.

And the more Dal considered his position, the more indefensible it appeared. Time after time he had thought of Dr. Arnquist's words about judgment and skill. Without one the other was of little value to a doctor, and whatever his skill as a surgeon might have been in the Moruan operating room, he now realized that his judgment had been poor. He had allowed himself to panic at a critical moment, and had failed to see how far the surgery had really progressed. By deciding to wait for help to arrive instead of taking over at once, he had placed the patient in even greater jeopardy than before. In looking back, Dal could see clearly that it would have been far better judgment to proceed on his own.

But that was how it looked now, not then, and there was an old saying that the "retrospectoscope" was the only infallible instrument in all medicine.

In any event, the thing was done, and couldn't be changed, and Dal knew that he could only stand on what he had done, right or wrong.

"Well, I'm waiting," Black Doctor Tanner said, scowling at Dal through his thick-rimmed glasses. "I want to know who was responsible for this fiasco, and why it occurred in the first place."

Dal spread his hands hopelessly. "What do you want me to say?" he asked. "I took a careful history of the situation as soon as we arrived here, and then I examined the patient in the operating room. I thought the surgery might be over my head, and couldn't see attempting it if a hospital ship could be reached in time. I thought the patient could be maintained safely long enough for us to call for help."

"I see," the Black Doctor said. "You've done micro-surgery before?"

"Yes, sir."

"And organ transplant work?"

"Yes, sir."

The Black Doctor opened a folder and peered at it over his glasses. "As a matter of fact, you spent two solid years in micro-surgical training in Hospital Philadelphia, with all sorts of glowing reports from your preceptors about what a flair you had for the work."

Dal shook his head. "I—I did some work in the field, yes, but not on critical cases under field conditions."

"You mean that this case required some different kind of technique than the cases you've worked on before?"

"No, not really, but—"

"But you just couldn't quite shoulder the responsibility the job involved when you got into a pinch without any help around," the Black Doctor growled.

"I just thought it would be safer to wait," Dal said helplessly.

"A good conservative approach," Dr. Tanner sneered. "Of course, you realized that prolonged anaesthesia in itself could threaten that patient's life?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you saw the patient's condition steadily deteriorating while you waited, did you not?"

"It was too late to change my mind then," Dal said desperately. "We'd sent for you. We knew that it would be only a matter of hours before you arrived."

"Indeed," the Black Doctor said. "Unfortunately, it takes only seconds for a patient to cross the line between life and death, not hours. And I suppose you would have stood there quietly and allowed him to expire if we had not arrived at the time we did?"

Dal shook his head miserably. There was nothing he could answer to that, and he realized it. What could he say? That the situation seemed quite different now than it had under pressure in the Moruan operating room? That he would have been blamed just as much if he had gone ahead, and then lost the case? His fingers stole down to Fuzzy's soft warm body for comfort, and he felt the little creature cling closer to his side.

The Black Doctor looked up at the others. "Well? What do the rest of you have to say?"

Jack Alvarez shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not a surgeon," he said, "but even I could see that something should be done without delay."

"And what does the Green Doctor think?"

Tiger shrugged. "We misjudged the situation, that's all. It came out fortunately for the patient, why make all this fuss about it?"

"Because there are other things at stake than just medical considerations," the Black Doctor shot back. "This planet has a grade I contract with Hospital Earth. We guarantee them full medical coverage of all situations and promise them immediate response to any call for medical help that they may send us. It is the most favorable kind of contract we have; when Morua VIII calls for help they expect their call to be answered by expert medical attention, not by inept bungling."

The Black Doctor leafed through the folder in his hands. "We have built our reputation in the Galactic Confederation on this kind of contract, and our admission to full membership in the Confederation will ultimately depend upon how we fulfill our promises. Poor medical judgment cannot be condoned under any circumstances—but above all, we cannot afford to jeopardize a contract."

Dal stared at him. "I—I had no intention of jeopardizing a contract," he faltered.

"Perhaps not," the Black Doctor said. "But you were the doctor on the spot, and you were so obviously incompetent to handle the situation that even these clumsy Moruan surgeons could see it. Their faith in the doctors from Hospital Earth has been severely shaken. They are even talking of letting their contract lapse at the end of this term."

Tiger Martin jumped to his feet. "Doctor Tanner, even Four-star Surgeons lose patients sometimes. These people should be glad that the doctor they call has sense enough to call for help if he needs it."

"But no help was needed," the Black Doctor said angrily. "Any half-decent surgeon would have handled the case. If the Moruans see a patrol ship bring in one incompetent doctor, what are they going to expect the next time they have need for help? How can they feel sure that their medical needs are well taken care of?" He shook his head grimly. "This is the sort of responsibility that doctors on the patrol ships are expected to assume. If you call for help where there is need for help, no one will ever complain; but when you turn and run the moment things get tough, you are not fit for patrol ship service."

The Black Doctor turned to Dal Timgar. "You had ample warning," he said. "It was clearly understood that your assignment on this ship depended upon the fulfillment of the duties of Red Doctor here, and now at the first real test you turn and run instead of doing your job. All right. You had your opportunity. You can't complain that we haven't given you a chance. According to the conduct code of the General Practice Patrol, section XIV, paragraph 2, any physician in the patrol on probationary status who is found delinquent in executing his duties may be relieved of his assignment at the order of any Black Doctor, or any other physician of four-star rank." Doctor Tanner closed the folder with a snap of finality. "It seems to me that the case is clear. Dal Timgar, on the authority of the Code, I am now relieving you of duty—"

"Just a minute," Tiger Martin burst out.

The Black Doctor looked up at him. "Well?"

"This is ridiculous," Tiger said. "Why are you picking on him? Or do you mean that you're relieving all three of us?"

"Of course I'm not relieving all three of you," the Black Doctor snapped. "You and Dr. Alvarez will remain on duty and conduct the ship's program without a Red Doctor until a man is sent to replace this bungler. That also is provided for in the code."

"But I understood that we were operating as a diagnostic and therapeutic team," Tiger protested. "And I seem to remember something in the code about fixing responsibility before a man can be relieved."

"There's no question where the responsibility lies," the Black Doctor said, his face darkening. "This was a surgical problem, and Dal Timgar made the decisions. I don't see anything to argue."

"There's plenty to argue," Tiger said. "Dal, don't you see what he's trying to do?"

Across the room Dal shook his head wearily. "You'd better keep out of it, Tiger," he said.

"Why should I keep out of it and let you be drummed out of the patrol for something that wasn't even your fault?" Tiger said. He turned angrily to the Black Doctor. "Dal wasn't the one that wanted the hospital ship called," he said. "I was. If you're going to relieve somebody, you'd better make it me."

The Black Doctor pulled off his glasses and glared at Tiger. "Whatever are you talking about?" he said.

"Just what I said. We had a conference after he'd examined the patient in the operating room, and I insisted that we call the hospital ship. Why, Dal—Dal wanted to go ahead and try to finish the case right then, and I wouldn't let him," Tiger blundered on. "I didn't think the patient could take it. I thought that it would be too great a risk with the facilities we had here."

Dal was staring at Tiger, and he felt Fuzzy suddenly shivering violently in his pocket. "Tiger, don't be foolish—"

The Black Doctor slammed the file down on the table again. "Is this true, what he's saying?" he asked Dal.

"No, not a word of it," Dal said. "I wanted to call the hospital ship."

"Of course he won't admit it," Tiger said angrily. "He's afraid you'll kick me out too, but it's true just the same in spite of what he says."

"And what do you say?" the Black Doctor said, turning to Jack Alvarez.

"I say it's carrying this big brother act too far," Jack said. "I didn't notice any conferences going on."

"You were back at the ship getting the surgical pack," Tiger said. "You didn't know anything about it. You didn't hear us talking, and we didn't see any reason to consult you about it."

The Black Doctor stared from Dal to Tiger, his face growing angrier by the minute. He jerked to his feet, and stalked back and forth across the control room, glaring at them. Then he took a capsule from his pocket, gulped it down with some water, and sat back down. "I ought to throw you both out on your ears," he snarled. "But I am forced to control myself. I mustn't allow myself to get angry—" He crashed his fist down on the control panel. "I suppose that you would swear to this statement of yours if it came to that?" he asked Tiger.

Tiger nodded and swallowed hard. "Yes, sir, I certainly would."

"All right," the Black Doctor said tightly. "Then you win this one. The code says that two opinions can properly decide any course of action. If you insist that two of you agreed on this decision, then I am forced to support you officially. I will make a report of the incident to patrol headquarters, and it will go on the permanent records of all three of this ship's crew—including my personal opinion of the decision." He looked up at Dal. "But be very careful, my young friend. Next time you may not have a technicality to back you up, and I'll be watching for the first plausible excuse to break you, and your Green Doctor friend as well. One misstep, and you're through. And I assure you that is not just an idle threat. I mean every word of it."

And trembling with rage, the Black Doctor picked up the folder, wrapped his cape around him, and marched out of the control room.

"Well, you put on a great show," Jack Alvarez said later as they prepared the ship for launching from the snow-swept landing field on Morua VIII. An hour before the ground had trembled as the Black Doctor's ship took off with Dr. Tanner and the Four-star Surgeon aboard; now Jack broke the dark silence in the Lancet's control room for the first time. "A really great show. You missed your calling, Tiger. You should have been on the stage. If you think you fooled Dr. Tanner with that story for half a second, you're crazy, but I guess you got what you wanted. You kept your pal's cuff and collar for him, and you put a black mark on all of our records, including mine. I hope you're satisfied."

Tiger Martin took off his earphones and set them carefully on the control panel. "You know," he said to Jack, "you're lucky."


"You're lucky I don't wipe that sneer off your face and scrub the walls with it. And you'd better not crowd your luck, because all I need right now is an invitation." He stood up, towering over the dark-haired Blue Doctor. "You bet I'm satisfied. And if you got a black mark along with the rest of us, you earned it all the way."

"That still doesn't make it right," Dal said from across the room.

"You just keep out of this for a minute," Tiger said. "Jack has got to get a couple of things straight, and this is the time for it right now."

Dal shook his head. "I can't keep out of it," he said. "You got me off the hook by shifting the blame, but you put yourself in trouble doing it. Dr. Tanner could just as well have thrown us both out of the service as not."

Tiger snorted. "On what grounds? For a petty little error like this? He wouldn't dare! You ought to read the log books of some of the other GPP ships some time and see the kind of bloopers they pull without even a reprimand. Don't worry, he was mad enough to throw us both out if he thought he could make it stick, but he knew he couldn't. He knew the council would just review the case and reverse his decision."

"It was still my error, not yours," Dal protested. "I should have gone ahead and finished the case on the spot. I knew it at the time, and I just didn't quite dare."

"So you made a mistake," Tiger said. "You'll make a dozen more before you get your Star, and if none of them amount to any more than this one, you can be very happy." He scowled at Jack. "It's only thanks to our friend here that the Black Doctor heard about this at all. A hospital ship would have come to take the patient aboard, and the local doctors would have been quieted down and that would have been all there was to it. This business about losing a contract is a lot of nonsense."

"Then you think this thing was just used as an excuse to get at me?"

"Ask him," Tiger said, looking at Jack again. "Ask him why a Black Doctor and a Four-star Surgeon turned up when we just called for a hospital ship."

"I called the hospital ship," Jack said sullenly.

"But you called Dr. Tanner too," said Tiger. "Your nose has been out of joint ever since Dal came aboard this ship. You've made things as miserable for him as you could, and you just couldn't wait for a chance to come along to try to scuttle him."

"All right," Jack said, "but he was making a mistake. Anybody could see that. What if the patient had died while he was standing around waiting? Isn't that important?"

Tiger started to answer, and then threw up his hands in disgust. "It's important—but something else is more important. We've got a job to do on this ship, and we can't do it fighting each other. Dal misjudged a case and got in trouble. Fine, he won't make that mistake again. It could just as well have been you, or me. We'll all make mistakes, but if we can't work as a team, we're sunk. We'll all be drummed out of the patrol before a year is out." Tiger stopped to catch his breath, his face flushed with anger. "Well, I'm fed up with this back-stabbing business. I don't want a fight any more than Dal does, but if I have to fight, I'll fight to get it over with, and you'd better be careful. If you pull any more sly ones, you'd better include me in the deal, because if Dal goes, I go too. And that's a promise."

There was silence for a moment as Jack stared up at Tiger's angry face. He shook his head and blinked, as though he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. He looked across at Dal, and then back at Tiger again. "You mean you'd turn in your collar and cuff?" he said.

"If it came to that."

"I see." Jack sat down at the control panel, still shaking his head. "I think you really mean it," he said soberly. "This isn't just a big brother act. You really like the guy, don't you?"

"Maybe I do," Tiger said, "but I don't like to watch anybody get kicked around just because somebody else doesn't happen to like him."

The control room was very quiet. Then somewhere below a motor clicked on, and the ventilation fan made a quiet whirring sound. The teletype clicked sporadically down the corridor in the communications room. Dal sat silently, rubbing Fuzzy between the eyes and watching the two Earthmen. It seemed suddenly as if they were talking about somebody a million miles away, as if he were not even in the room.

Then the Blue Doctor shrugged and rose to his feet. "All right," he said to Tiger. "I guess I just didn't understand where you stood, and I suppose it wasn't my job to let the Black Doctor know about the situation here. I don't plan to be making all the mistakes you think we're going to make, and I won't take the blame for anybody else's, but I guess we've got to work together in the tight spots." He gave Dal a lop-sided grin. "Welcome aboard," he said. "We'd better get this crate airborne before the people here come and cart it away."

They moved then, and the subject was dropped. Half an hour later the Lancet lifted through the atmospheric pull of the Moruan planet and moved on toward the next contact point, leaving the recovering patient in the hands of the native physicians. It was not until hours later that Dal noticed that Fuzzy had stopped quivering, and was resting happily and securely on his shoulder even when the Blue Doctor was near.

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