- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
New Trade Paper
Ships in 1 to 3 days
More copies of this ISBN
Other titles in the Sector General Novels series:
Beginning Operations (Sector General Novels)by James White
The alien occupying O'Mara's sleeping compartment weighed roughly half a ton, possessed six short, thick appendages which served both as arms or legs and had a hide like a flexible armor plate. Coming as it did from Hudlar, a four-G world with an atmospheric pressure nearly seven times Earth normal, such ruggedness of physique was to be expected. But despite its enormous strength the being was helpless, O'Mara knew, because it was barely six months old, it had just seen its parents die in a construction accident, and its brain was sufficiently well developed for the sight to have frightened it badly.
"I've b-b-brought the kid," said Waring, one of the section's tractor-beam operators. He hated O'Mara, and with good reason, but he was trying not to gloat. "C-C-Caxton sent me. He says your leg makes you unfit for normal duty, so you can look after the young one until somebody arrives from its home planet. He's on his way over n-now..."
Waring trailed off. He began checking the seals of his spacesuit, obviously in a hurry to get out before O'Mara could mention the accident. "I brought some of its food with me," he ended quickly. "It's in the airlock."
O'Mara nodded without speaking. He was a young man cursed with the kind of physique which ensured him winning every fight he had ever been in, and there had been a great many of them recently, and a face which was as square, heavy and roughly formed as was his over-muscled body. He knew that if he allowed himself to show how much that accident had affected him, Waring would think that he was simply putting on an act. Men who were put together as he was, O'Mara had long ago discovered, were not supposed to have any of the softer emotions.
* * *
Immediately Waring departed he went to the airlock for the glorified paint-sprayer with which Hudlarians away from their home planet were fed. While checking the gadget and its spare food tanks he tried to go over the story he would have to tell Caxton when the section chief arrived. Staring moodily through the airlock port at the bits and pieces of the gigantic jigsaw puzzle spread across fifty cubic miles of space outside, he tried to think. But his mind kept ducking away from the accident and slipping instead into generalities and events which were in the far past or future.
The vast structure which was slowly taking shape in Galactic Sector Twelve, midway between the rim of the parent galaxy and the densely populated systems of the Greater Magellanic Cloud, was to be a hospital--a hospital to end all hospitals. Hundreds of different environments would be accurately reproduced here, any extreme of heat, cold, pressure, gravity, radiation or atmosphere necessary for the patients and staff it would contain. Such a tremendous and complex structure was far beyond the resources of any one planet, so that hundreds of worlds had each fabricated sections of it and transported them to the assembly point.
But fitting the jigsaw together was no easy job.
Each of the worlds concerned had their copies of the master plan. But errors occurred despite this--probably through the plan having to be translated into so many different languages and systems of measurement. Sections which should have fitted snugly together very often had to be modified to make them join properly, and this necessitated moving the sections together and apart several times with massed tractor and pressor beams. This was very tricky work for the beam operators, because while the weight of the sections out in space was nil, their mass and inertia was tremendous.
And anyone unlucky enough to be caught between the joining faces of two sections in the process of being fitted became, no matter how tough a life-form they happened to be, an almost perfect representation of a two-dimensional body.
* * *
The beings who had died belonged to a tough species, physiological classification FROB to be exact. Adult Hudlarians weighed in the region of two Earth tons, possessed an incredibly hard but flexible tegument which, as well as protecting them from their own native and external pressures, allowed them to live and work comfortably in any atmosphere of lesser pressure down to and including the vacuum of space. In addition they had the highest radiation tolerance level known, which made them particularly invaluable during power pile assembly.
The loss of two such valuable beings from his section would, in any case, have made Caxton mad, quite apart from other considerations. O'Mara sighed heavily, decided that his nervous system demanded a more positive release than that, and swore. Then he picked up the feeder and returned to the bedroom.
Normally the Hudlarians absorbed food directly through their skin from the thick, soupy atmosphere of their planet, but on any other world or in space a concentrated food compound had to be sprayed onto the absorbent hides at certain intervals. The young e-t was showing large bare patches and in other places the previous food coating had worn very thin. Definitely, thought O'Mara, the infant was due for another feed. He moved as close as seemed safe and began to spray carefully.
The process of being painted with food seemed to be a pleasant one for the young FROB. It ceased to cower in the corner and began blundering excitedly about the small bedroom. For O'Mara it became a matter of trying to hit a rapidly moving object while practicing violent evasive maneuvers himself, which set his injured leg throbbing more painfully than ever. His furniture suffered, too.
Practically the whole interior surface of his sleeping compartment was covered with the sticky, sharp-smelling food compound, and also the exterior of the now-quiescent young alien, when Caxton arrived.
"What's going on?" said the Section Chief.
Space construction men as a class were simple, uncomplicated personalities whose reactions were easily predictable. Caxton was the type who always asked what was going on even when, as now, he knew--and especially when such unnecessary questions were meant simply to needle somebody. In the proper circumstances the section chief was probably a quite likeable individual, O'Mara thought, but between Caxton and himself those circumstances had yet to come about.
O'Mara answered the question without showing the anger he felt, and ended, "...After this I think I'll keep the kid in space, and feed it there..."
"You will not!" Caxton snapped. "You'll keep it here with you, all the time. But more about that later. At the moment I want to know about the accident. Your side of it, that is."
His expression said that he was prepared to listen, but that he already doubted every word that O'Mara would say in advance.
* * *
"Before you go any further," Caxton broke in after O'Mara had completed two sentences, "you know that this project is under Monitor Corps jurisdiction. Usually the Monitors let us settle any trouble that crops up in our own way, but this case involves extra-terrestrials and they'll have to be brought in on it. There'll be an investigation." He tapped the small, flat box hanging from his chest. "It's only fair to warn you that I'm taping everything you say."
O'Mara nodded and began giving his account of the accident in a low monotone. It was a very weak story, he knew, and stressing any particular incident so as to point it up in his favor would make it sound even more artificial. Several times Caxton opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Finally he said:
"But did anyone see you doing these things? Or even see the two e-ts moving about in the danger area while the warning lights were burning? You have a neat little story to explain this madness on their part--which, incidentally, makes you quite a hero--but it could be that you switched on the lights after the accident, that it was your negligence regarding the lights which caused it, and that all this about the straying youngster is a pack of lies designed to get you out of a very serious charge--"
"Waring saw me," O'Mara cut in.
Caxton stared at him intently, his expression changing from suppressed anger to one of utter disgust and scorn. Despite himself O'Mara felt his face heating up.
"Waring eh?" said the section chief tonelessly. "A nice touch, that. You know, and we all know, that you have been riding Waring constantly, needling him and playing on his disability to such an extent that he must hate you like poison. Even if he did see you, the court would expect him to keep quiet about it. And if he did not see you, they would think that he had and was keeping quiet about it anyway. O'Mara, you make me sick."
Caxton wheeled and stamped toward the airlock. With one foot through the inner seal he turned again.
"You're nothing but a troublemaker, O'Mara," he said angrily, "a surly, quarrelsome lump of bone and muscle with just enough skill to make you worth keeping. You may think that it was technical ability which got you these quarters on your own. It wasn't, you're good but not that good! The truth is that nobody else in my section would share accommodation with you..."
The section chief's hand moved to the cut-off switch on his recorder. His voice, as he ended, became a quiet, deadly thing.
"...And O'Mara if you let any harm come to that youngster, if anything happens to it at all, the Monitors won't even get the chance to try you."
The implications behind those final words were clear, O'Mara thought angrily as the section chief left; he was sentenced to live with this organic half-ton tank for a period that would feel like eternity no matter how short it was. Everybody knew that exposing Hudlarians to space was like putting a dog out for the night--there were no harmful effects at all. But what some people knew and what they felt were two vastly different things and O'Mara was dealing here with the personalities of simple, uncomplicated, over-sentimental and very angry construction men.
* * *
When he had joined the project six months before, O'Mara found that he was doomed again to the performance of a job which, while important in itself, gave him no satisfaction and was far below his capabilities. Since school his life had been a series of such frustrations. Personnel officers could not believe that a young man with such square, ugly features and shoulders so huge that his head looked moronically small by comparison could be interested in subtle subjects like psychology or electronics. He had gone into space in the hope of finding things different, but no. Despite constant efforts during interviews to impress people with his quite considerable knowledge, they were too dazzled by his muscle-power to listen, and his applications were invariably stamped "Approved Suitable for Heavy, Sustained Labor."
On joining this project he had decided to make the best of what promised to be another boring, frustrating job--he decided to become an unpopular character. As a result his life had been anything but boring. But now he was wishing that he had not been so successful at making himself disliked.
What he needed most at this moment was friends, and he hadn't a single one.
O'Mara's mind was dragged back from the dismal past to the even less pleasant present by the sharp all-pervading odor of the Hudlarian's food compound. Something would have to be done about that, and quickly. He hurriedly got into his lightweight suit and went through the lock.
His living quarters were in a tiny sub-assembly which would one day form the theater surgical ward and adjoining storage compartments of the hospital's low-gravity MSVK section. Two small rooms with a connecting section of corridor had been pressurized and fitted with artificial gravity grids for O'Mara's benefit, the rest of the structure remaining both airless and weightless. He drifted along short, unfinished corridors whose ends were open to space, staring into the bare, angular compartments which slid past. They were all full of trailing plumbing and half-built machinery the purpose of which it was impossible to guess without actually taking an MSVK educator tape. But all the compartments he examined were either too small to hold the alien or they were open in one direction to space. O'Mara swore with restraint but great feeling, pushed himself out to one of the ragged edges of his tiny domain and glared around him.
Above, below and all around him out to a distance of ten miles floated pieces of hospital, invisible except for the bright blue lights scattered over them as a warning to ship traffic in the area. It was a little like being at the center of a dense globular star cluster, O'Mara thought, and rather beautiful if you were in a mood to appreciate it. He wasn't, because on most of these floating sub-assemblies there were pressor-beam men on watch, placed there to fend off sections which threatened to collide. These men would see and report it to Caxton if O'Mara took his baby alien outside even for feeding.
The only answer apparently, he told himself disgustedly as he retraced his way, was nose-plugs.
Inside the lock he was greeted by a noise like a tinny foghorn. It blared out in long, discordant blasts with just enough interval in between to make him dread the arrival of the next one. Investigation revealed bare patches of hide showing through the last coat of food, so presumably his little darling was hungry again. O'Mara went for the sprayer.
When he had about three square yards covered there was an interruption. Dr. Pelling arrived.
The project doctor took off his helmet and gauntlets only, flexed the stiffness out of his fingers and growled, "I believe you hurt your leg. Let's have a look."
Pelling could not have been more gentle as he explored O'Mara's injured leg, but what he was doing was plainly a duty rather than an act of friendship. His voice was reserved as he said, "Severe bruising and a couple of pulled tendons is all--you were lucky. Rest. I'll give you some stuff to rub on it. Have you been redecorating?"
"What...?" began O'Mara, then saw where the doctor was looking. "That's food compound. The little so-and-so kept moving while I was spraying it. But speaking of the youngster, can you tell me--"
"No, I can't," said Pelling. "My brain is overloaded enough with the ills and remedies of my own species without my trying to stuff it with FROB physiology tapes. Besides, they're tough--nothing can happen to them!" He sniffed loudly and made a face. "Why don't you keep it outside?"
"Certain people are too soft-hearted," O'Mara replied bitterly. "They are horrified by such apparent cruelties as lifting kittens by the scruff of the neck..."
"Humph," said the doctor, looking almost sympathetic. "Well, that's your problem. See you in a couple of weeks."
"Wait!" O'Mara called urgently, hobbling after the doctor with one empty trouser leg flapping. "What if something does happen? And there has to be rules about the care and feeding of these things, simple rules. You can't just leave me to...to..."
"I see what you mean," said Pelling. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then went on, "There's a book kicking around my place somewhere, a sort of Hudlarian first aid handbook. But it's printed in Universal..."
"I read Universal," said O'Mara.
Pelling looked surprised. "Bright boy. All right, I'll send it over." He nodded curtly and left.
* * *
O'Mara closed the bedroom door in the hope that this might cut down the intensity of the food smell, then lowered himself carefully into the living room couch for what he told himself was a well-deserved rest. He settled his leg so that it ached almost comfortably and began trying to talk himself into an acceptance of the situation. The best he could achieve was a seething, philosophical calm.
But he was so weary that even the effort of feeling angry became too much for him. His eyelids dropped and a warm deadness began creeping up from his hands and feet. O'Mara sighed, wriggled and prepared to sleep...
The sound which blasted him out of his couch had the strident, authoritative urgency of all the alarm sirens that ever were and a volume which threatened to blow the bedroom door off its runners. O'Mara grabbed instinctively for his spacesuit, dropped it with a curse as he realized what was happening, then went for the sprayer.
Junior was hungry again...!
During the eighteen hours which followed it was brought home to O'Mara how much he did not know about infant Hudlarians. He had spoken many times to its parents via Translator, and the baby had been mentioned often, but somehow they had not spoken of the important things. Sleep, for instance.
Judging from recent observation and experience, infant FROBs did not sleep. In the all too short intervals between feeds they blundered around the bedroom smashing all items of furniture which were not metal and bolted down--and these they bent beyond recognition or usefulness--or they huddled in a corner knotting and unknotting their tentacles. Probably this sight of a baby doing the equivalent of playing with its fingers would have brought coos of delight from an adult Hudlarian, but it merely made O'Mara sick and cross-eyed.
And every two hours, plus or minus a few minutes, he had to feed the brute. If he was lucky it lay quiet, but more often he had to chase it around with the sprayer. Normally FROBs of this age were too weak to move about--but that was under Hudlar's crushing gravity-pull and pressure. Here in conditions which were to it less than one quarter-G, the infant Hudlarian could move. And it was having fun.
O'Mara wasn't: his body felt like a thick, clumsy sponge saturated with fatigue. After each feed he dropped onto the couch and let his bone-weary body dive blindly into unconsciousness. He was so utterly and completely spent, he told himself after every spraying, that he could not possibly hear the brute the next time it complained--he would be too deeply out. But always that blaring, discordant foghorn jerked him at least half awake and sent him staggering like a drunken puppet through the motions which would end that horrible, mind-wrecking din.
* * *
After nearly thirty hours of it O'Mara knew he couldn't take much more. Whether the infant was collected in two days or two months the result as far as he was concerned would be the same; he would be a raving lunatic. Unless in a weak moment he took a walk outside without his suit. Pelling would never have allowed him to be subjected to this sort of punishment, he knew, but the doctor was an ignoramus where the FROB life-form was concerned. And Caxton, only a little less ignorant, was the simple, direct type who delighted in this sort of violent practical joke, especially when he considered that the victim deserved everything he got.
But just suppose the section chief was a more devious character than O'Mara had suspected? Suppose he knew exactly what he was sentencing him to by leaving the infant Hudlarian in his charge? O'Mara cursed tiredly, but he had been at it so constantly for the last ten or twelve hours that bad language had ceased to be an emotional safety valve. He shook his head angrily in a vain attempt to dispel the weariness which clogged his brain.
Caxton wasn't going to get away with it.
He was the strongest man on the whole project, O'Mara knew, and his reserves of strength must be considerable. All this fatigue and nervous twitching was simply in his mind, he told himself insistently, and a couple of days with practically no sleep meant nothing to his tremendous physique--even after the shaking up he'd received in the accident. And anyway, the present situation with the infant couldn't get any worse, so it must soon begin to improve. He would beat them yet, he swore. Caxton would not drive him mad, or even to the point of calling for help.
This was a challenge, he insisted with weary determination. Up to now he had bemoaned the fact that no job had fully exploited his capabilities. Well, this was a problem which would tax both his physical stamina and deductive processes to the limit. An infant had been placed in his charge and he intended taking care of it whether it was here for two weeks or two months. What was more, he was going to see that the kid was a credit to him when its foster parents arrived...
* * *
After the forty-eighth hour of the infant FROB's company and the fifty-seventh since he had had a good sleep, such illogical and somewhat maudlin thinking did not seem strange to O'Mara at all.
Then abruptly there came a change in what O'Mara had accepted as the order of things. The FROB after complaining, was fed and refused to shut up!
O'Mara's first reaction was a feeling of hurt surprise; this was against the rules. They cried, you fed them, they stopped crying--at least for a while. This was so unfair that it left him too shocked and helpless to react.
The noise was bedlam, with variations. Long, discordant blasts of sound beat over him. Sometimes the pitch and volume varied in an insanely arbitrary manner and at others it had a grinding, staccato quality as if broken glass had got into its vocal gears. There were intervals of quiet, varying between two seconds and half a minute, during which O'Mara cringed waiting for the next blast. He struck it out for as long as he could--a matter of ten minutes or so--then he dragged his leaden body off the couch again.
"What the blazes is wrong with you?" O'Mara roared against the din. The FROB was thoroughly covered by food compound so it couldn't be hungry.
Now that the infant had seen him the volume and urgency of its cries increased. The external, bellows-like flap of muscle on the infant's back--used for sound production only, the FROBs being non-breathers--continued swelling and deflating rapidly. O'Mara jammed the palms of his hands against his ears, an action which did no good at all, and yelled, "Shut up!"
He knew that the recently orphaned Hudlarian must still be feeling confused and frightened, that the mere process of feeding it could not possibly fulfill all of its emotional needs--he knew all this and felt a deep pity for the being. But these feelings were in some quiet, sane and civilized portion of his mind and divorced from all the pain and weariness and frightful onslaughts of sound currently torturing his body. He was really two people, and while one of him knew the reason for the noise and accepted it, the other--the purely physical O'Mara--reacted instinctively and viciously to stop it.
"Shut up! SHUT UP!" screamed O'Mara, and started swinging with his fists and feet.
Miraculously after about ten minutes of it, the Hudlarian stopped crying.
O'Mara returned to the couch shaking. For those ten minutes he had been in the grip of a murderous, uncontrollable rage. He had punched and kicked savagely until the pains from his hands and injured leg forced him to stop using those members, but he had gone on kicking and screeching invective with the only other weapons left to him, his good leg and tongue. The sheer viciousness of what he had done shocked and sickened him.
It was no good telling himself that the Hudlarian was tough and might not have felt the beating; the infant had stopped crying so he must have got through to it somehow. Admittedly Hudlarians were hard and tough, but this was a baby and babies had weak spots. Human babies, for instance, had a very soft spot on the top of their heads...
When O'Mara's utterly exhausted body plunged into sleep his last coherent thought was that he was the dirtiest, lowest louse that had ever been born.
* * *
Sixteen hours later he awoke. It was a slow, natural process which brought him barely above the level of unconsciousness. He had a brief feeling of wonder at the fact that the infant was not responsible for waking him before he drifted back to sleep again. The next time he wakened was five hours later and to the sound of Waring coming through the airlock.
"Dr. P-Pelling asked me to bring this," he said, tossing O'Mara a small book. "And I'm not doing you a favor, understand--it's just that he said it was for the good of the youngster. How is it doing?"
"Sleeping," said O'Mara.
Waring moistened his lips. "I'm-I'm supposed to check. C-C-Caxton says so."
"Ca-Ca-Caxton would," mimicked O'Mara.
He watched the other silently as Waring's face grew a deeper red. Waring was a thin young man, sensitive, not very strong, and the stuff of which heroes were made. On his arrival O'Mara had been overwhelmed with stories about this tractor-beam operator. There had been an accident during the fitting of a power pile and Waring had been trapped in a section which was inadequately shielded. But he had kept his head and, following instructions radioed to him from an engineer outside, had managed to avert a slow atomic explosion which nevertheless would have taken the lives of everyone in his section. He had done this while all the time fully convinced that the level of radiation in which he worked would, in a few hours time, certainly cause his death.
But the shielding had been more effective than had been thought and Waring did not die. The accident had left its mark on him, however, they told O'Mara. He had blackouts, he stuttered, his nervous system had been subtly affected, they said, and there were other things which O'Mara himself would see and was urged to ignore. Because Waring had saved all their lives and for that he deserved special treatment. That was why they made way for him wherever he went, let him win all fights, arguments and games of skill or chance, and generally kept him wrapped in a swathe of sentimental cottonwool.
And that was why Waring was a spoiled, insufferable, simpering brat.
Watching his white-lipped face and clenched fists, O'Mara smiled. He had never let Waring win at anything if he could possibly help it, and the first time the tractor-beam man had started a fight with him had also been the last. Not that he had hurt him, he had been just tough enough to demonstrate that fighting O'Mara was not a good idea.
"Go in and have a look," O'Mara said eventually. "Do what Ca-Ca-Caxton says."
They went in, observed the gently twitching infant briefly and came out. Stammering, Waring said that he had to go and headed for the airlock. He didn't often stutter these days, O'Mara knew; probably he was scared the subject of the accident would be brought up.
"Just a minute," said O'Mara. "I'm running out of food compound, will you bring--"
"G-get it yourself!"
O'Mara stared at him until Waring looked away, then he said quietly, "Caxton can't have it both ways. If this infant has to be cared for so thoroughly that I'm not allowed to either feed or keep it in airless conditions, it would be negligence on my part to go away and leave it for a couple of hours to get food. Surely you see that. The Lord alone knows what harm the kid might come to if it was left alone. I've been made responsible for this infant's welfare so I insist..."
"B-b-but it won't--"
"It only means an hour or so of your rest period every second or third day," said O'Mara sharply. "Cut the bellyaching. And stop sputtering at me, you're old enough to talk properly."
Waring's teeth came together with a click. He took a deep, shuddering breath then with his jaws still clenched furiously together he exhaled. The sound was like an airlock valve being cracked. He said:
"It...will...take...all of...my next two rest periods. The FROB quarters...where the food is kept...are being fitted to the main assembly the day after tomorrow. The food compound will have to be transferred before then."
"See how easy it is when you try," said O'Mara, grinning. "You were a bit jerky at first there, but I understood every word. You're doing fine. And by the way, when you're stacking the food tanks outside the airlock will you try not to make too much noise in case you wake the baby?"
For the next two minutes Waring called O'Mara dirty names without repeating himself or stuttering once.
"I said you were doing fine," said O'Mara reprovingly. "You don't have to show off."
After Waring left, O'Mara thought about the dismantling of the Hudlarian's quarters. With gravity grids set to four Gs and what few other amenities they required the FROBs had been living in one of the key sections. If it was about to be fitted to the main assembly then the completion of the hospital structure itself could only be five or six weeks off. The final stages, he knew, would be exciting. Tractor men at their safe positions--depressions actually on the joining faces--tossing thousand-ton loads about the sky, bringing them together gently while fitters checked alignment or adjusted or prepared the slowly closing faces for joining. Many of them would disregard the warning lights until the last possible moment, and take the most hair-raising risks imaginable, just to save the time and trouble of having their sections pulled apart and rejoined again for a possible re-fitting.
O'Mara would have liked to be in on the finish, instead of babysitting!
Thought of the infant brought back the worry he had been concealing from Waring. It had never slept this long before--it must be twenty hours since it had gone to sleep or he had kicked it to sleep. FROBs were tough, of course, but wasn't it possible that the infant was not simply asleep but unconscious through concussion...?
O'Mara reached for the book which Pelling had sent and began to read.
It was slow, heavy going, but at the end of two hours O'Mara knew a little about the handling of Hudlarian babies, and the knowledge brought both relief and despair. Apparently his fit of temper and subsequent kicking had been a good thing--FROB babies needed constant petting and a quick calculation of the amount of force used by an adult of the species administering a gentle pat to its offspring showed that O'Mara's furious attack had been a very weak pat indeed. But the book warned against the dangers of over-feeding, and O'Mara was definitely guilty on this count. Seemingly the proper thing to do was to feed it every five or six hours during its waking period and use physical methods of soothing--patting, that was--if it appeared restless or still hungry. Also it appeared that FROB infants required, at fairly frequent intervals, a bath.
On the home planet this involved something like a major sandblasting operation, but O'Mara thought that this was probably due to the pressure and stickiness of the atmosphere. Another problem which he would have to solve was how to administer a hard enough consoling pat. He doubted very much if he could fly into a temper every time the baby needed its equivalent of a nursing.
But at least he would have plenty of time to work out something, because one of the things he had found out about them was that they were wakeful for two full days at a stretch, and slept for five.
* * *
During the first five-day period of sleep O'Mara was able to devise methods of petting and bathing his charge, and even had a couple of days free to relax and gather his strength for the two days of hard labor ahead when the infant woke up. It would have been a killing routine for a man of ordinary strength, but O'Mara discovered that after the first two weeks of it he seemed to make the necessary physical and mental adjustment to it. And at the end of four weeks the pain and stiffness had gone out of his leg and he had no worries regarding the baby at all.
Outside, the project neared completion. The vast, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle was finished except for a few unimportant pieces around the edges. A Monitor Corps investigator had arrived and was asking questions--of everybody, apparently, except O'Mara.
He couldn't help wondering if Waring had been questioned yet, and if he had, what the tractor man had said. The investigator was a psychologist, unlike the mere Engineer officers already on the project, and very likely no fool. O'Mara thought that he, himself, was no fool either; he had worked things out and by rights he should feel no anxiety over the outcome of the Monitor's investigations. O'Mara had sized up the situation here and the people in it, and the reactions of everyone were predictable. But it all depended on what Waring told that Monitor.
* * *
You're turning yellow! O'Mara thought in angry self-disgust. Now that your pet theories are being put to the test you're scared silly they won't work. You want to crawl to Waring and lick his boots!
And that course, O'Mara knew, would be introducing a wild variable into what should be a predictable situation, and it would almost certainly wreck everything. Yet the temptation was strong nevertheless.
* * *
It was at the beginning of the sixth week of his enforced guardianship of the infant, while he was reading up on some of the weird and wonderful diseases to which baby FROBs were prone, his airlock telltale indicated a visitor. He got off the couch quickly and faced the opening seal, trying hard to look as if he hadn't a worry in the world.
But it was only Caxton.
"I was expecting the Monitor," said O'Mara.
Caxton grunted. "Hasn't seen you yet, eh? Maybe he figures it would be a waste of time. After what we've told him he probably thinks the case is open and shut. He'll have cuffs with him when he comes."
O'Mara just looked at him. He was tempted to ask Caxton if the Corpsman had questioned Waring yet, but it was only a small temptation.
"My reason for coming," said Caxton harshly, "is to find out about the water. Stores department tells me you've been requisitioning treble the amount of water that you could conceivably use. You starting an aquarium or something?"
Deliberately O'Mara avoided giving a direct answer. He said, "It's time for the baby's bath, would you like to watch?"
He bent down, deftly removed a section of floor plating and reached inside.
"What are you doing?" Caxton burst out. "Those are the gravity grids, you're not allowed to touch--"
Suddenly the floor took on a thirty degree list. Caxton staggered against a wall, swearing. O'Mara straightened up, opened the inner seal of the airlock, then started up what was now a stiff gradient toward the bedroom. Still insisting loudly that O'Mara was neither allowed nor qualified to alter the artificial gravity settings, Caxton followed.
Inside, O'Mara said, "This is the spare food sprayer with the nozzle modified to project a high pressure jet of water." He pointed the instrument and began to demonstrate, playing the jet against a small area of the infant's hide. The subject of the demonstration was engaged in pushing what was left of one of O'Mara's chairs into even more unrecognizable shapes, and ignored them.
"You can see," O'Mara went on, "the area of skin where the food compound has hardened. This has to be washed at intervals because it clogs the being's absorption mechanism in those areas, causing the food intake to drop. This makes a young Hudlarian very unhappy and, ah, noisy..."
O'Mara trailed off into silence. He saw that Caxton wasn't looking at the infant but was watching the water which rebounded from its hide streaming along the now steeply slanted bedroom door, across the living room and into the open airlock. Which was just as well, because O'Mara's sprayer had uncovered a patch of the youngster's hide which had a texture and color he had never seen before. Probably there was nothing to worry about, but it was better not to have Caxton see it and ask questions.
"What's that up there?" said Caxton, pointing toward the bedroom ceiling.
In order to give the infant the petting it deserved O'Mara had had to knock together a system of levers, pulleys and counterweights and suspend the whole ungainly mass from the ceiling. He was rather proud of the gadget; it enabled him to administer a good, solid pat--a blow which would have instantly killed a human being--anywhere on that halfton carcass. But he doubted if Caxton would appreciate the gadget. Probably the section chief would swear that he was torturing the baby and forbid its use.
O'Mara started out of the bedroom. Over his shoulder he said, "Just lifting tackle."
* * *
He dried up the wet patches of floor with a cloth which he threw into the now partly waterfilled airlock. His sandals and coveralls were wet so he threw them in, also, then he closed the inner seal and opened the outer. While the water was boiling off into the vacuum outside he readjusted the gravity grids so that the floor was flat and the walls vertical again, then he retrieved his sandals, coveralls and cloth which were now bone dry.
"You seem to have everything well organized," said Caxton grudgingly as he fastened his helmet. "At least you're looking after the youngster better than you did its parents. See it stays that way.
"The Monitor will be along to see you at hour nine tomorrow," he added, and left.
O'Mara returned quickly to the bedroom for a closer look at the colored patch. It was a pale bluish gray and in that area the smooth, almost steel-hard surface of the skin had taken on a sort of crackle finish. O'Mara rubbed the patch gently and the FROB wriggled and gave a blast of sound that was vaguely interrogatory.
"You and me both," said O'Mara absently. He couldn't remember reading about anything like this, but then he had not read all the book yet. The sooner he did so the better.
The chief method of communicating between beings of different species was by means of a Translator, which electronically sorted and classified all sense-bearing sounds and reproduced them in the native language of its user. Another method, used when large amounts of accurate data of a more subjective nature had to be passed on, was the Educator tape system. This transferred bodily all the sensory impressions, knowledge and personality of one being into the mind of another. Coming a long way third both in popularity and accuracy was the written language which was somewhat extravagantly called Universal.
Universal was of use only to beings who possessed brains linked to optical receptors capable of abstracting knowledge from patterns of markings on a flat surface--in short, the printed page. While there were many species with this ability, the response to color in each species was very rarely matched. What appeared to be a bluish-gray patch to O'Mara might look like anything from yellow-gray to dirty purple to another being, and the trouble was that the other being might have been the author of the book.
One of the appendices gave a rough color-equivalent chart, but it was a tedious, time-consuming job checking back on it, and his knowledge of Universal was not perfect anyway.
* * *
Five hours later he was still no nearer diagnosing the FROB's ailment, and the single blue-gray patch on its hide had grown to twice its original size and been joined by three more. He fed the infant, wondering anxiously whether that was the right thing to do in a case like this, then returned quickly to his studies.
According to the handbook there were literally hundreds of mild, short-lived diseases to which young Hudlarians were subject. This youngster had escaped them solely because it had been fed on tanked food compound and had avoided the air-borne bacteria so prevalent on its home planet. Probably this disease was nothing worse than the Hudlarian equivalent of a dose of measles, O'Mara told himself reassuringly, but it looked serious. At the next feeding the number of patches had grown to seven and they were a deeper, angrier blue, also the baby was continually slapping at itself with its appendages. Obviously the colored patches itched badly. Armed with this new datum O'Mara returned to the book.
And suddenly he found it. The symptoms were given as rough, discolored patches on the tegument with severe itching due to unabsorbed food particles. Treatment was to cleanse the irritated patches after each feed so as to kill the itching and let nature take care of the rest. The disease was a very rare one on Hudlar these days, the symptoms appeared with dramatic suddenness and it ran its course and disappeared equally quickly. Provided ordinary care was taken of the patient, the book stated, the disease was not dangerous.
O'Mara began converting the figures into his own time and size scale. As accurately as he could come to it the colored patches should grow to about eighteen inches across and he could expect anything up to twelve of them before they began to fade. This would occur, calculating from the time he had noticed the first spot, in approximately six hours.
He hadn't a thing to worry about.
At the conclusion of the next feeding O'Mara carefully sprayed the blue patches clean, but still the young FROB kept slapping furiously at itself and quivering ponderously. Like a kneeling elephant with six angrily waving trunks, he thought. O'Mara had another look at the book, but it still maintained that under ordinary conditions the disease was mild and short-lived, and that the only palliative treatment possible was rest and seeing that the affected areas were kept clean.
Kids, thought O'Mara distractedly, were a blasted worrisome thing...!
All that quivering and slapping looked wrong, common sense told him, and should be stopped. Maybe the infant was scratching through sheer force of habit, though the violence of the process made this seem doubtful, and a distraction of some kind would make it stop. Quickly O'Mara chose a fifty-pound weight and used his lifting tackle to swing it to the ceiling. He began raising and dropping it rhythmically over the spot which he had discovered gave the infant the most pleasure--an area two feet back of the hard, transparent membrane which protected its eyes. Fifty pounds dropping from a height of eight feet was a nice gentle pat to a Hudlarian.
Under the patting the FROB grew less violent in its movements. But as soon as O'Mara stopped it began lashing at itself worse than ever, and even running full tilt into walls and what was left of the furniture. During one frenzied charge it nearly escaped into the living room, and the only thing which stopped it was the fact that it was too big to go through the door. Up to that moment O'Mara did not realize how much weight the FROB had put on in five weeks.
Finally sheer fatigue made him give up. He left the FROB threshing and blundering about in the bedroom and threw himself onto the couch outside to try to think.
According to the book it was now time for the blue patches to begin to fade. But they weren't fading--they had reached the maximum number of twelve and instead of being eighteen or less inches across they were nearly double that size. They were so large that at the next feeding the absorption area of the infant would have shrunk by a half, which meant that it would be further weakened by not getting enough food. And everyone knew that itchy spots should not be scratched if the condition was not to spread and become more serious...
A raucous foghorn note interrupted his thoughts. O'Mara had experience enough to know by the sound that the infant was badly frightened, and by the relative decrease in volume that it was growing weak as well.
* * *
He needed help badly, but O'Mara doubted very much if there was anyone available who could furnish it. Telling Caxton about it would be useless--the section chief would only call in Pelling and Pelling was much less informed on the subject of Hudlarian children than was O'Mara, who had been specializing in the subject for the past five weeks. That course would only waste time and not help the kid at all, and there was a strong possibility that--despite the presence of a Monitor investigator--Caxton would see to it that something pretty violent happened to O'Mara for allowing the infant to take sick, for that was the way the section chief would look at it.
Caxton didn't like O'Mara. Nobody liked O'Mara.
If he had been well-liked on the project nobody would have thought of blaming him for the infant's sickness, or immediately and unanimously assuming that he was the one responsible for the death of its parents. But he had made the decision to appear a pretty lousy character, and he had been too damned successful.
Maybe he really was a despicable person and that was why the role had come so easy to him. Perhaps the constant frustration of never having the chance to really use the brain which was buried in his ugly, muscle-bound body had gradually soured him, and the part he thought he was playing was the real O'Mara.
If only he had stayed clear of the Waring business. That was what had them really mad at him.
But this sort of thinking was getting him nowhere. The solution of his own problems lay--in part, at least--in showing that he was responsible, patient, kind and possessed the various other attributes which his fellow men looked on with respect. To do that he must first show that he could be trusted with the care of a baby.
He wondered suddenly if the Monitor could help. Not personally; a Corps psychologist officer could hardly be expected to know about obscure diseases of Hudlar children, but through his organization. As the Galaxy's police, maid-of-all-work and supreme authority generally, the Monitor Corps would be able to find at short notice a being who would know the necessary answers. But again, that being would almost certainly be found on Hudlar itself, and the authorities there already knew of the orphaned infant's position and help had probably been on the way for weeks. It would certainly arrive sooner than the Monitor could bring it. Help might arrive in time to save the infant. But again maybe it might not.
The problem was still O'Mara's.
About as serious as a dose of measles.
But measles, in a human baby, could be very serious if the patient was kept in a cold room or in some other environment which, although not deadly in itself, could become lethal to an organism whose resistance was lowered by disease or lack of food. The handbook had prescribed rest, cleansing and nothing else. Or had it? There might be a large and well hidden assumption there. The kicker was that the patient under discussion was residing on its home world at the time of the illness. Under ordinary conditions like that the disease probably was mild and shortlived.
But O'Mara's bedroom was not, for a Hudlarian baby with the disease, anything like normal conditions.
With that thought came the answer, if only he wasn't too late to apply it. Abruptly O'Mara pushed himself out of the couch and hurried to the spacesuit locker. He was climbing into the heavy duty model when the communicator beeped at him.
"O'Mara," Caxton's voice brayed at him when he had acknowledged, "the Monitor wants to talk to you. It wasn't supposed to be until tomorrow but--"
"Thank you, Mr. Caxton," broke in a quiet, firmer voice. There was a pause, then, "My name is Craythorne, Mr. O'Mara. I had planned to see you tomorrow as you know, but I managed to clear up some other work which left me time for a preliminary chat..."
* * *
What, thought O'Mara fulminatingly, a damned awkward time you had to pick! He finished putting on the suit but left the gauntlets and helmet off. He began tearing into the panel which covered the air-supply controls.
"...To tell you the truth," the quiet voice of the Monitor went on, "your case is incidental to my main work here. My job is to arrange accommodation and so on for the various life-forms who will shortly be arriving to staff this hospital, and to do everything possible to avoid friction developing between them when they do come. There are a lot of finicky details to attend to, but at the moment I'm free. And I'm curious about you, O'Mara. I'd like to ask some questions."
This is one smooth operator! thought one half of O'Mara's mind. The other half noted that the air-supply controls were set to suit the conditions he had in mind. He left the panel hanging loose and began pulling up a floor section to get at the artificial gravity grid underneath. A little absently he said, "You'll have to excuse me if I work while we talk. Caxton will explain--"
"I've told him about the kid," Caxton broke in, "and if you think you're fooling him by pretending to be the harassed mother type...!"
"I understand," said the Monitor. "I'd also like to say that forcing you to live with an FROB infant when such a course was unnecessary comes under the heading of cruel and unusual punishment, and that about ten years should be knocked off your sentence for what you've taken this past five weeks--that is, of course, if you're found guilty. And now, I always think it's better to see who one is talking to. Can we have vision, please?"
The suddenness with which the artificial gravity grids switched from one to two Gs caught O'Mara by surprise. His arms folded under him and his chest thumped the floor. A frightened bawl from his patient in the next room must have disguised the noise he made from his listeners because they didn't mention it. He did the great-grand-daddy of all pressups and heaved himself to his knees.
He fought to keep from gasping. "Sorry, my vision transmitter is on the blink."
The Monitor was silent just long enough to let O'Mara know that he knew he was lying, and that he would disregard the lie for the moment. He said finally, "Well, at least you can see me," and O'Mara's vision plate lit up.
It showed a youngish man with close-cropped hair whose eyes seemed twenty years older than the rest of his features. The shoulder tabs of a Major were visible on the trim, dark-green tunic and the collar bone bore a caduceus. O'Mara thought that in different circumstances he would have liked this man.
"I've something to do in the next room," O'Mara lied again. "Be with you in a minute."
* * *
He began the job of setting the anti-gravity belt on his suit to two Gs repulsion, which would exactly counteract the floor's present attraction and allow him to increase the pull to four Gs without too much discomfort to himself. He would then reset the belt for three Gs, and that would give him back a normal gravity apparent of one G.
At least that was what should have happened.
Instead the G-belt or the floor grids or both started producing half-G fluctuations, and the room went mad. It was like being in an express elevator which was constantly being started and stopped. The frequency of the surges built up rapidly until O'Mara was being shaken up and down so hard his teeth rattled. Before he could react to this a new and more devastating complication occurred. As well as variations in strength the floor grids were no longer acting at right angles to their surface, but yawed erratically from ten to thirty degrees from the vertical. No stormtossed ship had ever pitched and rolled as viciously as this. O'Mara staggered, grabbed frantically for the couch, missed and was flung heavily against the wall. The next surge sent him skidding against the opposite wall before he was able to switch off the G-belt.
The room settled down to a steady gravity-pull of two Gs again.
"Will this take long?" asked the Monitor suddenly.
O'Mara had almost forgotten the Major during the past hectic seconds. He did his best to make his voice sound both natural and as if it was coming from the next room as he replied, "It might. Could you call back later?"
"I'll wait," said the Monitor.
For the next few minutes O'Mara tried to forget the bruising he had received despite the protection given him by the heavy spacesuit, and concentrate on thinking his way out of this latest mess. He was beginning to see what must have happened.
When two anti-gravity generators of the same power and frequency were used close together, a pattern of interference was set up which affected the stability of both. The grids in O'Mara's quarters were merely a temporary job and powered by a generator similar to the one used in his suit, though normally a difference in frequency was built in against the chance of such instability occurring. But O'Mara had been fiddling with the grid settings constantly for the past five weeks--every time the infant had a bath, to be exact--so that he must have unknowingly altered the frequency.
He didn't know what he had done wrong and there wasn't enough time to try fixing it if he had known. Gingerly, O'Mara switched on his G-belt again and slowly began increasing power. It registered over three-quarters of a G before the first signs of instability appeared.
Four Gs less three-quarters made a little over three Gs. It looked, O'Mara thought grimly, like he was going to have to do this the hard way...
O'Mara closed his helmet quickly, then strung a cable from his suit mike to the communicator so that he would be able to talk without Caxton or the Monitor realizing that he was sealed inside his suit. If he was to have time to complete the treatment they must not suspect that there was anything out of the ordinary going on here. Next came the final adjustments to the air-pressure regulator and gravity grids.
Inside two minutes the atmosphere pressure in the two rooms had multiplied six times and the gravity apparent was four Gs--the nearest, in fact, that O'Mara could get to "ordinary conditions" for a Hudlarian. With shoulder muscles straining and cracking with the effort--for his under-powered G-belt took only three-quarters of a gravity off the four-G pull in the room--he withdrew the incredibly awkward and ponderous thing which his arm had become from the grid servicing space and rolled heavily onto his back.
He felt as if his baby was sitting on his chest, and large, black blotches hung throbbing before his eyes. Through them he could see a section of ceiling and, at a crazy angle, the vision panel. The face in it was becoming impatient.
"I'm back, Major," gasped O'Mara. He fought to control his breathing so that the words would not be squeezed out too fast. "I suppose you want to hear my side of the accident?"
"No," said the Monitor. "I've heard the tape Caxton made. What I'm curious about is your background prior to coming here. I've checked up and there is something which doesn't quite fit..."
A thunderous eruption of noise blasted into the conversation. Despite the deeper note caused by the increased air pressure O'Mara recognized the signal for what it was; the FROB was angry and hungry.
With a mighty effort O'Mara rolled onto his side, then propped himself up on his elbows. He stayed that way for a while gathering strength to roll over onto his hands and knees. But when he finally accomplished this he found that his arms and legs were swelling and felt as if they would burst from the pressure of blood piling up in them. Gasping, he eased himself down flat onto his chest. Immediately the blood rushed to the front of his body and his vision began to red out.
He couldn't crawl on hands and knees nor wriggle on his stomach. Most certainly, under three Gs, he could not stand up and walk. What else was there?
O'Mara struggled onto his side again and rolled back, but this time with his elbows propping him up. The neck-rest of his suit supported his head, but the insides of the sleeves were very lightly padded and his elbows hurt. And the strain of holding up even part of his three times heavier than normal body made his heart pound. Worst of all, he was beginning to black out again.
Surely there must be some way to equalize, or at least distribute, the pressures in his body so that he could stay conscious and move. O'Mara tried to visualize the layout of the acceleration chairs which had been used in ships before artificial gravity came along. It had been a not-quite-prone position, he remembered suddenly, with the knees drawn up...
Inching along on his elbows, bottom and feet, O'Mara progressed snail-like toward the bedroom. His embarrassment of riches where muscles were concerned was certainly of use now--in these conditions any ordinary man would have been plastered helplessly against the floor. Even so it took him fifteen minutes to reach the food sprayer in the bedroom, and during practically every second of the way the baby kept up its earsplitting racket. With the increased pressure the noise was so tremendously loud and deep that every bone in O'Mara's body seemed to vibrate to it.
"I'm trying to talk to you!" the Monitor yelled during a lull. "Can't you keep that blasted kid shut up!"
"It's hungry," said O'Mara. "It'll quiet down when it's fed..."
The food sprayer was mounted on a trolley and O'Mara had fitted a pedal control so as to leave both hands free for aiming. Now that his patient was immobilized by four gravities he didn't have to use his hands. Instead he was able to nudge the trolley into position with his shoulders and depress the pedal with his elbow. The high-pressure jet tended to bend floorward owing to the extra gravity but he did finally manage to cover the infant with food. But cleaning the affected areas of food compound was another matter. The water jet, which handled very awkwardly from floor level, had no accuracy at all. The best he could manage was to wash down the wide, vivid blue patch--formed from three separate patches which had grown together--which covered nearly one quarter of its total skin area.
* * *
After that O'Mara straightened out his legs and lowered his back gently to the floor. Despite the three Gs acting on him, the strain of maintaining that half-sitting position for the last half hour made him feel almost comfortable.
The baby had stopped crying.
"What I was about to say," said the Monitor heavily when the silence looked like lasting for a few minutes, "was that your record on previous jobs does not fit what I find here. Previously you were, as you are now, a restless, discontented type, but you were invariably popular with your colleagues and only a little less so with your superiors--this last being because your superiors were sometimes wrong and you never were..."
"I was every bit as smart as they were," said O'Mara tiredly, "and proved it often. But I didn't look intelligent, I had mucker written all over me!"
It was strange, O'Mara thought, but he felt almost disinterested in his own personal trouble now. He couldn't take his eyes off the angry blue patch on the infant's side. The color had deepened and also the center of the patch seemed to have swelled. It was as if the super-hard tegument had softened and the FROB's enormous internal pressure had produced a swelling. Increasing the gravity and pressure to the Hudlarian normal should, he hoped, halt that particular development--if it wasn't a symptom of something else entirely.
O'Mara had thought of carrying his idea a step further and spraying the air around the patient with food compound. On Hudlar the natives' food was comprised of tiny organisms floating in their super-thick atmosphere, but then again the handbook expressly stated that food particles must be kept away from the affected areas of tegument, so that the extra gravity and pressure should be enough...
"...Nevertheless," the Monitor was saying, "if a similar accident had happened on one of your previous jobs, your story would have been believed. Even if it had been your fault they would have rallied around to defend you from outsiders like myself.
"What caused you to change from a friendly, likeable type of personality to this...?"
"I was bored," said O'Mara shortly.
There had been no sound from the infant yet, but he had seen the characteristic movements of the FROB's appendages which foretold of an outburst shortly to come. And it came. For the next ten minutes speech was, of course, impossible.
O'Mara heaved himself onto his side and rolled back onto his now raw and bleeding elbows. He knew what was wrong; the infant had missed its usual after-feed nursing. O'Mara humped his way slowly across to the two counterweight ropes of the gadget he had devised for petting the infant and prepared to remedy this omission. But the ends of the ropes hung four feet above the floor.
* * *
Lying propped by one elbow and straining to raise the dead weight of his other arm, O'Mara thought that the rope could just as easily have been four miles away. Sweat poured off his face and body with the intensity of the effort and slowly, trembling and wobbling so much that his gauntleted hand went past it first time, he reached up and grabbed hold. Still gripping it tightly he lowered himself gently back bringing the rope with him.
The gadget operated on a system of counterweights, so that there was no extra pull needed on the controlling ropes. A heavy weight dropped neatly onto the infant's back, administering a reassuring pat. O'Mara rested for a few minutes, then struggled up to repeat the process with the other rope, the pull on which would also wind up the first weight ready for use again.
After about the eighth pat he found that he couldn't see the end of the rope he was reaching for, though he managed to find it all the same. His head was being kept too high above the level of the rest of his body for too long a time and he was constantly on the point of blacking out. The diminished flow of blood to his brain was having other effects, too...
"...There, there," O'Mara heard himself saying in a definitely maudlin voice. "You're all right now, pappy will take care of you. There now, shush..."
The funny thing about it was that he really did feel a responsibility and a sort of angry concern for the infant. He had saved it once only to let this happen! Maybe the three Gs which jammed him against the floor, making every breath a day's work and the smallest movement an operation which called for all the reserves of strength he possessed, was bringing back the memory of another kind of pressure--the slow, inexorable movement together of two large, inanimate and uncaring masses of metal.
As fitter-in-charge of that particular shift O'Mara had just switched on the warning lights when he had seen the two adult Hudlarians chasing after their offspring on one of the faces being joined. He had called them through his translator, urging them to get to safety and leave him to chase the youngster clear--being much smaller than its parents the slowly closing faces would take longer to reach it, and during those extra few minutes O'Mara would have been able to herd it out of danger. But either their translators were switched off or they were reluctant to trust the safety of their child to a diminutive human being. Whatever the reason, they remained between the faces until it was too late. O'Mara had to watch helplessly as they were trapped and crushed by the joining structures.
The sight of the young one, still unharmed because of its smaller girth, floundering about between the bodies of its late parents sent O'Mara into belated action. He was able to chase it out of danger before the sections came close enough to trap it, and had just barely made it himself. For a few heart-stopping seconds back there O'Mara had thought he would have to leave a leg behind.
* * *
This was no for kids anyway, he told himself angrily as he looked at the quivering, twitching body with the patches of vivid, scabrous blue. People shouldn't be allowed to bring kids out here, even tough people like the Hudlarians.
But Major Craythorne was speaking again.
"...Judging by what I hear going on over there," said the Monitor acidly, "you're taking very good care of your charge. Keeping the youngster happy and healthy will definitely be a point in your favor..."
Happy and healthy, thought O'Mara as he reached toward the rope yet again. Healthy...!
"...But there are other considerations," the quiet voice went on. "Were you guilty of negligence in not switching on the warning lights until after the accident occurred, which is what you are alleged to have done? And your previous record notwithstanding, here you have been a surly, quarrelsome bully and your behavior toward Waring especially...!"
The Monitor broke off, looked faintly disapproving, then went on, "A few minutes ago you said that you did all these things because you were bored. Explain that."
"Wait a minute, Major," Caxton broke in, his face appearing suddenly behind Craythorne's on the screen. "He's stalling for some reason, I'm sure of it. All those interruptions, this gasping voice he's using and this shush-a-bye-baby stuff is just an act to show what a great little nursemaid he is. I think I'll go over and bring him back here to answer you face to face--"
"That won't be necessary," said O'Mara quickly. "I'll answer any questions you want, right now."
He had a horrible picture of Caxton's reaction if the other saw the infant in its present state; the sight of it made O'Mara feel queasy and he was used to it now. Caxton wouldn't stop to think, or wait for explanations, or ask himself if it was fair to place an e-t in charge of a human who was completely ignorant of its physiology or weaknesses. He would just react. Violently.
And as for the Monitor...
O'Mara thought that he might get out of the accident part, but if the kid died as well he hadn't a hope. The infant had had a mild though uncommon disease which should have responded to treatment days ago, and instead had become progressively worse, so it would die anyway if O'Mara's last desperate try at reproducing its home planet's conditions did not come off. What he needed now was time. According to the book, about four to six hours of it.
Suddenly the futility of it all hit him. The infant's condition had not improved--it heaved and twitched and generally looked to be the most desperately ill and pitiable creature that had ever been born. O'Mara swore helplessly. What he was trying to do now should have been tried days ago, his baby was as good as dead, and continuing this treatment for another five or six hours would probably kill or cripple him for life. And it would serve him right!
The infant's appendages curled in the way O'Mara knew meant that it was going to cry again, and grimly he began pushing himself onto his elbows for another patting session. That was the very least he could do. And even though he was convinced that going on was useless, the kid had to be given the chance. O'Mara had to have time to finish the treatment without interruptions, and to insure that he would have to answer this Monitor's questions in a full and satisfactory manner. If the kid started crying again he wouldn't be able to do that.
"...For your kind cooperation," the Major was saying dryly. "First off, I want an explanation for your sudden change of personality."
"I was bored," said O'Mara. "Hadn't enough to do. Maybe I'd become a bit of a sorehead, too. But the main reason for setting out to be a lousy character was that there was a job I could do here which could not be done by a nice guy. I've studied a lot and think of myself as a pretty good rule-of-thumb psychologist..."
Suddenly came disaster. O'Mara's supporting elbow slipped as he was reaching for the counterweight rope and he crashed back to the floor from a distance of two-and-a-half feet. At three Gs this was equivalent to a fall of seven feet. Luckily he was in a heavy duty suit with a padded helmet so he did not lose consciousness. But he did cry out, and instinctively held onto the rope as he fell.
That was his mistake.
One weight dropped, the other swung up too far. It hit the ceiling with a crash and loosened the bracket which supported the light metal girder which carried it. The whole structure began to sag, and slip, then was suddenly yanked floorward by four Gs onto the infant below. In his dazed state O'Mara could not guess at the amount of force expended on the infant--whether it was a harder than usual pat, the equivalent of a sharp smack on the bottom, or something very much more serious. The baby was very quiet afterward, which worried him.
"...For the third time," shouted the Monitor, "what the blazes is going on in there?"
O'Mara muttered something which was unintelligible even to himself. Then Caxton joined in.
"There's something fishy going on, and I bet it involves the kid! I'm going over to see--"
"No wait!" said O'Mara desperately. "Give me six hours..."
"I'll see you," said Caxton, "in ten minutes."
"Caxton!" O'Mara shouted, "if you come through my airlock you'll kill me! I'll have the inner seal jammed open and if you open the outer one you'll evacuate the place. Then the Major will lose his prisoner."
There was a sudden silence, then:
"What," asked the Monitor quietly, "do you want the six hours for?"
O'Mara tried to shake his head to clear it, but now that it weighed three times heavier than normal he only hurt his neck. What did he want six hours for? Looking around him he began to wonder, because both the food sprayer and its connecting water tank had been wrecked by the fall of tackle from the ceiling. He could neither feed, wash, nor scarcely see his patient for fallen wreckage, so all he could do for six hours was watch and wait for a miracle.
"I'm going over," said Caxton doggedly.
"You're not," said the Major, still polite but with a no-nonsense tone. "I want to get to the bottom of this. You'll wait outside until I've spoken with O'Mara alone. Now O'Mara, what...is...happening?"
* * *
Flat on his back again O'Mara fought to gain enough breath to carry on an extended conversation. He had decided that the best thing to do would be to tell the Monitor the exact truth, and then appeal to him to back O'Mara up in the only way possible which might save the infant--by leaving him alone for six hours. But O'Mara was feeling very low as he talked, and his vision was so poor that he couldn't tell sometimes whether his eyelids were open or shut. He did see someone hand the Major a note, but Craythorne didn't read it until O'Mara had finished speaking.
"You are in a mess," Craythorne said finally. He briefly looked sympathetic, then his tone hardened again. "And ordinarily I should be forced to do as you suggest and give you that six hours. After all, you have the book and so you know more than we do. But the situation has changed in the last few minutes. I've just had word that two Hudlarians have arrived, one of them a doctor. You had better step down, O'Mara. You tried, but now let some skilled help salvage what they can from the situation. For the kid's sake," he added.
* * *
It was three hours later. Caxton, Waring and O'Mara were facing the Major across the Monitor's desk. Craythorne had just come in.
He said briskly, "I'm going to be busy for the next few days so we'll get this business settled quickly. First, the accident. O'Mara, your case depends entirely on Waring's corroboration for your story. Now there seems to be some pretty devious thinking here on your part. I've already heard Waring's evidence, but to satisfy my own curiosity I'd like to know what you think he said?"
"He backed up my story," said O'Mara wearily. "He had no choice."
He looked down at his hands, still thinking about the desperate sick infant he had left in his quarters. He told himself again that he wasn't responsible for what had happened, but deep inside he felt that if he had shown more flexibility of mind and had started the pressure treatment sooner the kid would have been all right now. But the result of the accident enquiry didn't seem to matter now, one way or the other, and neither did the Waring business.
"Why do you think he had no choice?" prodded the Monitor sharply.
Caxton had his mouth open, looking confused. Waring would not meet O'Mara's eyes and he was beginning to blush.
"When I came here," O'Mara said dully, "I was looking out for a secondary job to fill my spare time, and hounding Waring was it. He is the reason for my being an obnoxious type, that was the only way I could go to work on him. But to understand that you have to go a bit further back. Because of that power pile accident," O'Mara went on, "all the men of his section were very much in Waring's debt--you've probably heard the details by now. Waring himself was a mess. Physically he was below par--had to get shots to keep his blood-count up, was just about strong enough to work his control console, and was fairly wallowing in self-pity. Psychologically he was a wreck. Despite all Pelling's assurances that the shots would only be necessary for a few more months he was convinced that he had pernicious anemia. He also believed that he had been made sterile, again despite everything the doctor told him, and this conviction made him act and talk in a way which would give any normal man the creeps--because that sort of thing is pathological and there wasn't anything like that wrong with him. When I saw how things were I started to ridicule him every chance I got. I hounded him unmercifully. So the way I see it he had no other choice but to support my story. Simple gratitude demanded it."
"I begin to see the light," said the Major. "Go on."
"The men around him were very much in his debt," O'Mara continued. "But instead of putting the brakes on, or giving him a good talking to, they smothered him with sympathy. They let him win all fights, card-games or whatever, and generally treated him like a little tin god. I did none of these things. Whenever he lisped or stuttered or was awkward about anything," O'Mara went on, "whether it was due to one of his mental and self-inflicted disabilities or a physical one which he honestly couldn't help, I jumped on him hard with both feet. Maybe I was too hard sometimes, but remember that I was one man trying to undo the harm that was being done by fifty. Naturally he hated my guts, but he always knew exactly where he was with me. And I never pulled punches. On the very few occasions when he was able to get the better of me, he knew that he had won despite everything I could do to stop him--unlike his friends who let him beat them at everything and in so doing made his winning meaningless. That was exactly what he needed for what ailed him, somebody to treat him as an equal and made no allowances at all. So when this trouble came," O'Mara ended, "I was pretty sure he would begin to see what I'd been doing for him--consciously as well as subconsciously--and that simple gratitude plus the fact that basically he is a decent type would keep him from withholding the evidence which would clear me. Was I right?"
"You were," said the Major. He paused to quell Caxton who had jumped to his feet, protesting, then continued, "Which brings us to the FROB infant.
"Apparently your baby caught one of the mild but rare diseases which can only be treated successfully on the home planet," Craythorne went on. He smiled suddenly. "At least, that was what they thought until a few hours ago. Now our Hudlarian friends state that the proper treatment has already been initiated by you and that all they have to do is wait for a couple of days and the infant will be as good as new. But they're very annoyed with you, O'Mara," the Monitor continued. "They say that you've rigged special equipment for petting and soothing the kid and that you've done this much more often than is desirable. The baby has been overfed and spoiled shamelessly, they say, so much so that at the moment it prefers human beings to members of its own species--"
Suddenly Caxton banged the desk. "You're not going to let him get away with this," he shouted, red-faced. "Waring doesn't know what he's saying sometimes..."
"Mr. Caxton," said the Monitor sharply, "All the evidence available proves that Mr. O'Mara is blameless, both at the time of the accident and while he was looking after the infant later. However, I am not quite finished with him here, so perhaps you two would be good enough to leave..."
Caxton stormed out, followed more slowly by Waring. At the door the tractor-beam man paused, addressed one printable and three unprintable words to O'Mara, grinned suddenly and left. The Major sighed.
"O'Mara," he said sternly, "you're out of a job again, and while I don't as a rule give unasked for advice I would like to remind you of a few facts. In a few weeks time the staff and maintenance engineers for this hospital will be arriving and they will be comprised of practically every known species in the galaxy. My job is to settle them in and keep friction from developing between them so that eventually they will work together as a team. No text-book rules have been written to cover this sort of thing yet, but before they sent me here my superiors said that it would require a good rule-of-thumb psychologist with plenty of common sense who was not afraid to take calculated risks. I think it goes without saying that two such psychologists would be even better..."
O'Mara was listening to him all right, but he was thinking of that grin he'd got from Waring. Both the infant and Waring were going to be all right now, he knew, and in his present happy state of mind he could refuse nothing to anybody. But apparently the Major had mistaken his abstraction for something else.
"...Dammit I'm offering you a job! You fit here, can't you see that? This is a hospital, man, and you've cured our first patient...!"
Copyright © 2001 by the Estate of James White. This book is an omnibus edition comprising the novels Hospital Station, copyright © 1962 by James White, Star Surgeon.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like