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Chapter 2 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

Owen’s first thought on entering the Board-room was that he’d inadvertently walked into an episode of Doctor Kildare. Certainly no medical environment he’d experienced outside of a 1960s TV show had ever been so unnervingly white. And so unnervingly male. There was just one woman in the room, barely more than a kid, who was plainly just off night shift. She sat at the far end of the table, trying to suppress yawns, effacing herself when the others directed pointed looks at her and then towards the coffee trolley.

Her long, honey-coloured hair hung over her barely-made-up face and she made no effort to push it back. She hunched her shoulders under her tight ward-whites and leant forwards as though she welcomed the camouflage. Petrova Comienski, according to the name plaque in front of her.

Owen appraised her in silence. She was fit, all right, but he knew the type. Wake you up at three a.m. in order to bend your ear about the oppression inherent in the system. And he’d bet five - marks, was it, they used round here? - that her bikini line had never seen a wax in its life. Not, in short, worth the hassle.

Pretty name, though.

He lounged back in his chair and linked the fingers of his hands behind the back of his neck.

“Administrator Vorsoisson, can you make sure everyone’s got coffee who wants it? Me - I take it black. One sweetener.”

Vorsoisson’s look of outrage at being demoted to tea-boy couldn’t have been more profound if Owen had just invited him to bend and spread ‘em. Which, Owen guessed, was a management style for which the planet Barrayar was not yet prepared.

He paused until coffee had been doled out all around. He took a sip. It was truly disgusting; for the first time since he’d arrived here he felt, suddenly, homesick.

That’s not going to do any good. If you haven’t a clue how you got here, fat chance of you working out how to get home again. You’ve got to hope Dad’s Scoobies figure it out before anything disastrous happens.

Thinking about the odds against that happening would just get you nowhere. Onwards and upwards. Carpe diem. And all that sort of crap.

“Well,” he drawled, “the name’s Harper. Owen Harper.”

He paused, but there was no flicker of recognition from his audience. Either a very long way into the future or the PC brigade had finally won out, then. He grinned. “But my name doesn’t matter. I’m expecting that you’ll all know far more about me than you might want by the time we’ve had a day or two together.”

There was a brief pause while that sunk in, followed by a quick rumble of laughter. Taking advantage of the mood he leant abruptly forward.

“It’s all you I need to know about. You, for example.”

He pointed at a grey-haired man, the one he’d pegged from the moment he’d entered in the room as the oldest there. Not the most senior, necessarily, but all the more reason to get him on side. Christophe Vaumont, according to his name plaque.

“Vaumont. Tell me all about the Valentin Henri Memorial Hospital.” He caught a slight hesitancy in the man’s expression, a dangerous hint of How come he doesn’t know already? He crossed the Galaxy to be here.

In an expansive gesture Owen spread his hands across the polished hardwood of the Board-room table. “Oh, not the crap they feed you when they want to get you on the payroll. I know all about that. I fell for it, after all. And I suppose you lot did, too. Since you’re all here.”

That got an even bigger laugh, except from Vorsoisson, who looked as though he’d swallowed a lemon. Briefly it occurred to Owen that people in Vorsoisson’s position were exactly the sort of suckers they got to write recruitment briefs for positions they’d never be capable of filling, at a salary and status which they probably had wet dreams over.

Vaumont ducked his head in wry acknowledgement. “Indeed. Well, as you’ll be aware, our foundation statutes leave us with what might in theory might be seen as a somewhat tricky balance. While we are tasked with introducing, promoting and developing best practice galactic medicine we are also charged with providing comprehensive medical support to those who would otherwise have no expectation of adequate medical provision.”

Owen leaned back again, half-closed his eyes and exhaled.

“Nah. Sounds perfect to me. Bring in all these shiny new alien techniques, experiment on the unwashed peasantry, and, if you don’t kill too many of them, maybe you’ll get to treat Lady Muck or her relatives before you die. Or they do.”

He’d expected Petrova Whatsername to react to that, and she did. She sat bolt upright and shot him a look of pure naked contempt. He suppressed a twinge of pity. It was always the idealistic ones who washed up at 35, explaining to the BMA disciplinary committees odd discrepancies in their opiate prescribing patterns.

Vaumont’s wry smile deepened. “Indeed. I’m sure you and our late Director would have had a great deal in common. Vorgeraint frequently used to complain that the pace of advance was glacially slow, and that if we weren’t tied down by so many bureaucratic constraints -“

Vorsoisson uttered a small impatient noise, easily translated as Get on with it, man and Vaumont left the sentence hanging. Owen pricked up his ears. So he’d stepped into dead man’s shoes, had he? A nerve twitched somewhere inside him; if he’d been a fan of that sort of literature he might have said that his nostrils caught a faint whiff of the Reek of Wrongness™.

What did the last one die of? had always struck Owen as one of the more prudent questions ever devised by the human brain, whether it came to taking temporary charge of a drop-in clinic in one of the parts of the East End that the gentrifiers would get to shortly after they finished less ambitious projects, such as the Gaza Strip, or consoling a nubile, recent and not conspicuously heartbroken widow (who’d actually turned out to be a Rigelian neo-mantis on her version of a Club 18-30 holiday, which just proved the point, really). He made a mental note to get Vorsoisson to give him computer access immediately after the meeting. The files on his predecessor were bound to be worth pulling.

Vaumont, thus nudged, gave a short and concise description of the hospital, its history and current specialisms; Vorsoisson gave a long and rambling version of the same, contradicting most of what Vaumont had said. The others around the table chipped in, describing for his benefit various practice areas which he didn’t understand and which he promptly forgot all about once the next speaker started.

Pretty much like every induction course he’d ever been on for every job he’d ever had, then.

Well, apart from Torchwood Three, naturally. There induction had consisted of fighting off the attentions of a pterodactyl which was allegedly just being friendly and having the boss pat his arse (ditto), before he’d been plunged straight into faking up a death certificate for a deceased rugby supporter who’d apparently ingested an alien life form masquerading as a burger from one of the vans outside the Millennium Stadium.

Owen, lost in thought, suddenly became aware that the room was silent and that everyone was looking at him. He got to his feet. “Well, everyone, I’m sure we’ve all got jobs to do. Let’s be about it.”

Released by his permission the assembled medics made an orderly stampede towards the door. Out of the corner of his eye Owen caught a swirl of sudden movement, heard a sharp indrawn breath. He turned to see Petrova, her face bright red, stalking out of the room while one of the younger doctors, who’d been sitting next to her, winked across the table at a colleague, a broad grin on his face.

Owen looked at the man for a few minutes, carefully memorising his features. He reminded Owen of someone. It took him a moment before he realised. Not just physically but in mannerisms and body language the other doctor could have been a younger version of himself.

Owen slid a casual glance at his name plaque. Justin Hasek. Clearly someone who would repay his keeping an eye on.

He made his voice casual as he turned to Vorsoisson.

“Anyway, no time like the present. Can you set me up on the network?”