It was hours later when their ship reached the contact point co-ordinates. There had been little 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.
Dal's worst fears were realized when the inspection ship appeared, converting from Koenig drive within a few miles of the Lancet. He had seen the ship before—a sleek, handsomely outfitted patrol class ship with the insignia of the Black Service of Pathology emblazoned on its hull, the private ship of a Four-star Black Doctor.
But none of them anticipated the action taken by the inspection ship as it drew within lifeboat range of the Lancet.
A scooter shot away from its storage rack on the black ship, and a crew of black-garbed technicians piled into the Lancet's entrance lock, dressed in the special decontamination suits worn when a ship was returning from a plague spot into uninfected territory.
"What is this?" Tiger demanded as the technicians started unloading decontamination gear into the lock. "What are you doing with that stuff?"
The squad leader looked at him sourly. "You're in quarantine, Doc," he said. "Class I, all precautions, contact with unidentified pestilence. If you don't like it, argue with the Black Doctor, I've just got a job to do."
He started shouting orders to his men, and they scattered throughout the ship, with blowers and disinfectants, driving antiseptic sprays into every crack and cranny of the ship's interior, scouring the hull outside in the rigid pattern prescribed for plague ships. They 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.
"This is idiotic," Jack protested. "We aren't carrying any dangerous organisms!"
The squad leader shrugged indifferently. "Tell it to the Black Doctor, not me. All I know is that this ship is under quarantine until it's officially released, and from what I hear, it's not going to be released for quite some time."
At last the job was done, and the scooter departed back to the inspection ship. A few moments later they saw it returning, this time carrying just three men. In addition to the pilot and one technician, there was a single passenger: a portly figure dressed in a black robe, horn-rimmed glasses and cowl.
The scooter grappled the Lancet's side, and Black Doctor Hugo Tanner climbed wheezing into the entrance lock, followed by the technician. He stopped halfway into the lock to get his breath, and paused again as the lock swung closed behind him. Dal was shocked at the physical change in the man in the few short weeks since he had seen him last. The Black Doctor's face was gray; every effort of movement brought on paroxysms of coughing. He looked sick, and he looked tired, yet his jaw was still set in angry determination.
The doctors stood at attention as he stepped into the control room, hardly able to conceal their surprise at seeing him. "Well?" the Black Doctor snapped at them. "What's the trouble with you? You act like you've seen a ghost or something."
"We—we'd heard that you were in the hospital, sir."
"Did you, now!" the Black Doctor snorted. "Hospital! Bah! I had to tell the press something to get the hounds off me for a while. These young puppies seem to think that a Black Doctor can just walk away from his duties any time he chooses to undergo their fancy surgical procedures. And you know who's been screaming the loudest to get their hands on me. The Red Service of Surgery, that's who!"
The Black Doctor glared at Dal Timgar. "Well, I dare say the Red Doctors will have their chance at me, all in good time. But first there are certain things which must be taken care of." He looked up at the attendant. "You're quite certain that the ship has been decontaminated?"
The attendant nodded. "Yes, sir."
"And the crewmen?"
"It's safe to talk to them, sir, as long as you avoid physical contact."
The Black Doctor grunted and wheezed and settled himself down in a seat. "All right now, gentlemen," he said to the three, "let's have your story of this affair in the Brucker system, right from the start."
"But we sent in a full report," Tiger said.
"I'm aware of that, you idiot. I have waded through your report, all thirty-five pages of it, and I only wish you hadn't been so long-winded. Now I want to hear what happened directly from you. Well?"
The three doctors looked at each other. Then Jack began the story, starting with the first hesitant "greeting" that had come through to them. He told everything that had happened without embellishments: their first analysis of the nature of the problem, the biochemical and medical survey that they ran on the afflicted people, his own failure to make the diagnosis, the incident of Fuzzy's sudden affliction, and the strange solution that had finally come from it. As he talked the Black Doctor sat back with his eyes half closed, his face blank, listening and nodding from time to time as the story proceeded.
And Jack was carefully honest and fair in his account. "We were all of us lost, until Dal Timgar saw the significance of what had happened to Fuzzy," he said. "His idea of putting the creature through the filter gave us our first specimen of the isolated virus, and showed us how to obtain the antibody. Then after we saw what happened with our initial series of injections, we were really at sea, and by then we couldn't reach a hospital ship for help of any kind." He went on to relate Dal's idea that the virus itself might be the intelligent creature, and recounted the things that happened after Dal went down to talk to the spokesman again with Fuzzy on his shoulder.
Through it all the Black Doctor listened sourly, glancing occasionally at Dal and saying nothing. "So is that all?" he said when Jack had finished.
"Not quite," Jack said. "I want it to be on the record that it was my failure in diagnosis that got us into 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 problem."
"I see," the Black Doctor said. He pointed to Dal. "So it was this one who really came up with the answers and directed the whole program on this problem, is that right?"
"That's right," Jack said firmly. "He should get all the credit."
Something stirred in Dal's mind and he felt Fuzzy snuggling in tightly to his side. He could feel the cold hostility in the Black Doctor's mind, and he started to say something, but the Black Doctor cut him off. "Do you agree to that also, Dr. Martin?" he asked Tiger.
"I certainly do," Tiger said. "I'll back up the Blue Doctor right down the line."
The Black Doctor smiled unpleasantly and nodded. "Well, I'm certainly happy to hear you say that, gentlemen. I might say that it is a very great relief to me to hear it from your own testimony. Because this time there shouldn't be any argument from either of you as to just where the responsibility lies, and I'm relieved to know that I can completely exonerate you two, at any rate."
Jack Alvarez's jaw went slack and he stared at the Black Doctor as though he hadn't heard him properly. "Exonerate us?" he said. "Exonerate us from what?"
"From the charges of incompetence, malpractice and conduct unbecoming to a physician which I am lodging against your colleague in the Red Service here," the Black Doctor said angrily. "Of course, I was confident that neither of you two could have contributed very much to this bungling mess, but it is reassuring to have your own statements of that fact on the record. They should carry more weight in a Council hearing than any plea I might make in your behalf."
"But—but what do you mean by a Council hearing?" Tiger stammered. "I don't understand you! 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...."
"Oh, yes. That!" The Black Doctor drew a long pink dispatch sheet from an inner pocket and opened it out. The doctors could see the photo reproductions of their signatures at the bottom. "Fortunately—for you two—this bit of nonsense was brought to my attention at the first relay station that received it. I personally accepted it and withdrew it from the circuit before it could reach Hospital Earth for filing."
Slowly, as they watched him, he ripped the pink dispatch sheet into a dozen pieces and tossed it into the disposal vent. "So much for that," he said slowly. "I can choose to 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 allow it to appear in the general report. And of course I am forced to classify the Lancet as a plague ship until a bacteriological and virological examination has been completed on both ship and crew. The planet itself will be considered a galactic plague spot until proper measures have been taken to insure its decontamination."
The Black Doctor drew some papers from another pocket and turned to Dal Timgar. "As for you, the charges are clear enough. You have broken the most fundamental rules of good judgment and good medicine in handling the 31 Brucker affair. You have permitted a General Practice Patrol ship to approach a potentially dangerous plague spot without any notification of higher authorities. You have undertaken a biochemical and medical survey for which you had neither the proper equipment nor the training qualifications, and you exposed your ship and your crewmates to an incredible risk in landing on such a planet. You are 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 audacity to try to cover up your bungling with claims of arranging a medical service contract with an uninvestigated race."
The Black Doctor broke off as an attendant came in the door and whispered something in his ear. Doctor Tanner shook his head angrily, "I can't be bothered now!"
"They say it's urgent, sir."
"Yes, it's always urgent." The Black Doctor heaved to his feet. "If it weren't for this miserable incompetent here, I wouldn't have to be taking precious time away from my more important duties." He scowled at the Lancet crewmen. "You will excuse me for a moment," he said, and disappeared into the communications room.
The moment he was gone from the room, Jack and Tiger were talking at once. "He couldn't really be serious," Tiger said. "It's impossible! Not one of those charges would hold up under investigation."
"Well, I think it's a frame-up," Jack said, his 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 a party to such a thing. Either someone has been misinforming him, or he just doesn't understand what happened."
Dal shook his head. "He understands, all right, and he's the one who's determined to get me out of medicine. This is a flimsy excuse, but he has to use it, because it's now or never. He knows that if we bring in a contract with 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 Tanner is going to be certain that I don't get that Star, or die trying."
"But this is completely unfair," Jack 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 wrote, and there won't be any questions asked about it."
"Except that I'll be out of the service," Dal said. "Don't worry. You'll get the credit in the long run. When all the dust settles, he'll be sure that you two are named as agents for the contract. He doesn't want to hurt you, it's me that he's out to get."
"Well, he won't get away with it," Tiger said. "We can see to that. 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 has to get rid of a lot more than just you."
But Dal was shaking his head. "Not this time, Tiger. This time you keep out of it."
"What do you mean, keep out of it?" Tiger cried. "Do you think I'm going to stand by quietly and watch him cut you down?"
"That's exactly what you're going to do," Dal 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."
"But I can't stand by and do nothing! When a friend of mine needs help—"
"Can't you get it through your thick skull that this time I don't want your help?" Dal said. "Do me a favor this time. Leave me alone. Don't stick your thumb in the pie."
Tiger just stared at the little Garvian. "Look, Dal, all I'm trying to do—"
"I know what you're trying to do," Dal snapped, "and I don't want any part of it. I don't need your help, I don't want it. Why do you have to force it down my throat?"
There was a long silence. Then Tiger spread his hands helplessly. "Okay," he said, "if that's the way you want it." He turned away from Dal, 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," Dal 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 Tiger's face, as though he 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 with us, but I'm a person just like you are. I can't go on leaning on you any longer. Everybody has to stand on his own somewhere along the line. You do, and I do, too. And that goes for Jack, too."
They heard the door to the communications shack open, and the Black Doctor was back in the room. "Well?" he said. "Am I interrupting something?" He glanced sharply at the tight-lipped doctors. "The call was from the survey section," he went on blandly. "A survey crew is on its way to 31 Brucker to start gathering some useful information 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?"
Tiger and Jack looked at each other. The silence in the room was profound.
The Black Doctor turned to Dal. "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 attendant, too," Dal said.
The Black Doctor's eyes glinted and met Dal's for a moment. Then he shrugged and nodded to his attendant. "Step outside, please. We have a private matter to discuss."
The Black Doctor turned his attention to the papers on the desk as Dal stood before him with Fuzzy sitting in the crook of his arm. From the moment that the notice of the inspection ship's approach had come to the Lancet, Dal had known what was coming. He had been certain what the purpose of the detainment was, and who the inspector would be, yet he had not really been worried. In the back of his mind, a small, comfortable thought had been sustaining him.
It didn't really matter how hostile or angry Black Doctor Tanner might be; he knew that in a last-ditch stand there was one way the Black Doctor could be handled.
He remembered the dramatic shift from hostility to friendliness among the Bruckians when he had come down from the ship with Fuzzy on his shoulder. Before then, he had never considered using his curious power to protect himself and gain an end; but since then, without even consciously bringing it to mind, he had known that the next time would be easier. If it ever came to a showdown with Black Doctor Tanner, a trap from which he couldn't free himself, there was still this way. The Black Doctor would never know what happened, he thought. It would just seem to him, suddenly, that he had been looking at things the wrong way. No one would ever know.
But he knew, even as the thought came to mind, that this was not so. Now, face to face with the showdown, he knew that it was no good. One person would know what had happened: himself. On 31 Brucker, he had convinced himself that the end justified the means; here it was different.
For a moment, as Black Doctor Tanner stared up at him through the horn-rimmed glasses, Dal wavered. Why should he hesitate to protect himself? he thought angrily. This attack against him was false and unfair, trumped up for the sole purpose of destroying his hopes and driving him out of the Service. Why shouldn't he grasp at any means, fair or unfair, to fight it?
But he could hear the echo of Black Doctor Arnquist's words in his mind: I beg of you not to use it. No matter what happens, don't use it. Of course, Doctor Arnquist would never know, for sure, that he had broken faith ... but he would know....
"Well," Black Doctor Tanner was saying, "speak up. I can't waste much more time dealing with you. If you have something to say, say it."
Dal sighed. He lifted Fuzzy down and slipped him gently into his jacket pocket. "These charges against me are not true," he said.
The Black Doctor shrugged. "Your own crewmates support them with their statements."
"That's not the point. They're not true, and you know it 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 hands clenched on the papers on the desk. "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 are alone here," Dal said. "Nobody else 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."
The Black Doctor slammed his fist down on the table. "I don't have to listen to insolence like this," he roared.
"Yes, you do," Dal said. "Just this once. Then I'll be through." Suddenly Dal's words were tumbling out of control, and his whole body was trembling with anger. "You have been determined from the very beginning that I should never finish the medical training that I started. You've tried to block me time after time, in every way you could think of. You've almost succeeded, but never quite made it until this time. But now you have to make it. If that contract were to go through I'd get my Star, and you'd never again be able to do anything about it. So it's now or never if you're going to break me."
"Nonsense!" the Black Doctor stormed. "I wouldn't lower myself to meddle with your kind. The charges speak for themselves."
"Not if you look at them carefully. You claim I failed to notify Hospital Earth that we had entered a plague area—but our records of our contact with the planet prove that we did only what any patrol ship would have done when the call came in. We didn't have enough information to know that there was a plague there, and when we finally did know the truth we could no longer make contact with Hospital Earth. You claim that I brought harm to two hundred of the natives there, yet if you study our notes and records, you will see that our errors there were unavoidable. We couldn't have done anything else under the circumstances, and if we hadn't done what we did, we would have been ignoring the basic principles of diagnosis and treatment which we've been taught. And your charges don't mention that by possibly harming two hundred of the Bruckians, we found a way to save two million of them from absolute destruction."
The Black Doctor glared at him. "The charges will stand up, I'll see to that."
"Oh, I'm sure you will! You can ram them through and make them stick before anybody ever has a chance to examine them carefully. You have the power to do it. And by the time an impartial judge could review all the records, your survey ship will have been there and gathered so much more data and muddied up the field so thoroughly that no one will ever be certain that the charges aren't true. But you and I know that they wouldn't really hold up under inspection. We know that they're false right down the line and that you're the one who is responsible for them."
The Black Doctor grew darker, and he trembled with rage as he drew himself to his feet. Dal could feel his hatred almost like a physical blow and his voice was almost a shriek.
"All right," he said, "if you insist, then the charges are lies, made up specifically to break you, and I'm going to push them through if I have to jeopardize my reputation to do it. You could have bowed out gracefully at any time along the way and saved yourself dishonor and disgrace, but you wouldn't do it. Now, I'm going to force you to. I've worked my lifetime long to build the reputation of Hospital Earth and of the Earthmen that go out to all the planets as representatives. I've worked to make the Confederation respect Hospital Earth and the Earthmen who are her doctors. You don't belong here with us. You forced yourself in, you aren't an Earthman and you don't have the means or resources to be a doctor from Hospital Earth. If you succeed, a thousand others will follow in your footsteps, chipping away at the reputation that we have worked to build, and I'm not going to allow one incompetent alien bungler pretending to be a surgeon to walk in and destroy the thing I've fought to build—"
The Black Doctor's voice had grown shrill, almost out of control. But now suddenly he broke off, his mouth still working, and his face went deathly white. The finger he was pointing at Dal wavered and fell. He clutched at his chest, his breath coming in great gasps and staggered back into the chair. "Something's happened," his voice croaked. "I can't breathe."
Dal stared at him in horror for a moment, then leaped across the room and jammed his thumb against the alarm bell.