As one of the biggest centers of medicine in Hospital Earth's North American district, Hospital Philadelphia afforded very little space for anyone to enjoy a quiet moment. Medical students forgot about that luxury quickly, as they joined ranks with the hundreds and thousands of other practitioners inhabiting this sprawling, ancient city.
Tiger Martin reveled in it. There was always something new to see or someone new to meet, and yet it was just as easy to catch up with friends. "Like Neverland without the pirates," he joked, and was pleased to hear the phrase spread not just among his fellow first years but even the upper classes. He joined a rec ball team, served on several committees, and managed to attend every party he was invited to, earning his nickname as he romped from one group.
By the start of his second year, Tiger's reputation and popularity were as established an institution as the school itself.
But barely one week into the new term and even his stamina was flagging. The faculty didn't hold back as they raised the standard of achievement ever higher. "It's not enough to be smart," an irascible White Service doctor lectured one morning to his bleary-eyed students. "You wouldn't be here if you weren't smart enough. A doctor must also have the heart and the will to serve, and the ability to face a crisis at a moment's notice, such as this morning's pop quiz."
The quiz turned out to be a review of their entire physiology courseload up to that point, which Tiger barely finished before hurrying to his next class. Another surprise exam greeted him there, followed by an unannounced dissection just before lunch.
He barely had the energy to drag himself to the school lounge, plopping into the first unoccupied seat. "I was wrong," he announced to the person beside him. "There are pirates here, and they are out to kill us all." When he got no response, he turned and offered a lopsided grin. "Well, at least torture us into an early grave. Or maybe it's just my teachers who decided to restart the Inquisition. Hi, I don't think we've met: Frank Martin, but you can call me Tiger. Everyone does, except the fellows with the whips. What's yours?"
The little guy stared back with the biggest gray eyes Tiger had ever seen. "You want to know my name?" he asked, his soft treble almost inaudible in the busy lounge.
"Of course I do," Tiger said, pulling a protein bar out of his pocket. "I thought I knew just about everyone by now, but after this morning's third degree I can barely remember my own name."
That comment drew a tiny smile in answer. "I'm Dal. Dal Timgar."
"Okay Dal Timgar, tell me something: how come no else is sitting at our table? This place is usually packed to full capacity."
The grey eyes drooped forlornly as Dal looked around. "Because I'm sitting here," he whispered. Turning back to Tiger he spoke up in a voice full of false bravado. "It's okay if you want to move, I won't mind."
"Move? Are you kidding?" Tiger stretched his legs out to snag the chair across the table, leaning back and taking another bite out of his snack. "I never get to stretch out like this, and boy do I need to unwind today."
Dal blinked. "But, don't you have friends you want to talk to? You're usually surrounded by people."
"I know: that's why this is such a nice change of pace. And besides, I am talking to a friend."
"He hold me his name's Dal Timgar, but that's all I know about him so far. Care to share some more? I like knowing all about my friends."
For someone with such a tiny face, Dal managed to drop his jaw to a ridiculous size, his mouth forming a surprised "Oh!" Snapping it back tight, he frowned. "First you have to meet someone," he said. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the cutest pink ball of fur Tiger had ever seen. The little thing actually chirped in delight as he uncurled in Dal's hands.
Tiger whistled. "I have got to take a picture of that thing: my nieces will simply die when they see it. I thought they had every pink creation in the universe."
Dal ignored Tiger's words, barreling on without looking up. "His name is Fuzzy, at least that's the best you can say it in English. He's not a pet or a toy. He's a person, as much as I am, and he's not going anywhere. If that's a problem, you'll have to find somewhere else to sit."
"Hold it, what are you talking about?" Tiger asked, putting his legs down and sitting upright. "Why would I have a problem with little Fuzzy here? Or you?"
Dal stared straight into his eyes with a haunted look. "Because I'm the Garvian who's foolish enough to try to become a doctor. The only one in your school not from Earth. And you're Tiger Martin, the most popular student at Hospital Philadelphia. Can't you see all the weird looks everyone's giving us?" Anger darkened his tone. "Why don't you go back to your real friends. You're just making everything worse by sitting here."
It was Tiger's turn to blink in surprise. "Wait just a minute," he protested as Dal started to return Fuzzy to his pocket. "You don't have to put him away: he looked like he was having a nice break out here. If he's a person, doesn't he get to enjoy lunch too?"
"You ... you care, about him?" Dal asked hesitantly.
"You bet I do. I've never seen anyone like him, even in anatomy diagrams. And I've certainly never met anyone from Garv II up front and personal. We don't exactly get many offworld visitors back in New Chicago." Seeing his words slowly take effect, Tiger pressed on. "What's it like in space? I've never been to anything higher than low Earth orbit, and they say deep space travel is a thousand times crazier. Why, you're better prepared than anyone here for patrol ship life after graduation. What service are you going into?"
"Red, surgery," Dal answered automatically, shocked out of his dark mood. He glanced down at Fuzzy, now peeping back out of his pocket, and then back up at Tiger, a question ghosting his expression. Swallowing a nervous gulp of air, he smiled. "Thanks. For asking."
"No problem." Tiger leaned back again. "Glad we got that settled. I'm Green Service, by the way. So: surgery. Bet you're taking tons of anatomy courses. We should get together for a study session some time: after my test this morning I'll probably need all the help I can get."
Without warning Fuzzy scurried up to Dal's shoulder, growing legs as he did so. The Garvian froze, his smile suddenly brittle and his fingers clenching his plate.
Tiger burt out laughing. "That has got to be the neatest thing I have seen since coming here," he pronounced. "Does he do that often?"
Dal relaxed, grinning back. "Only when he wants to show off," he said, shooting a long-suffering look at his little friend. "He doesn't have a fixed cellular structure, so he simply morphs into whatever form he needs to. But the color is permanent. I didn't realize until moving here that might be a problem."
"Only for guys who aren't secure enough to see past it." Tiger rolled his eyes. "They'll probably flunk out after this term anyway. Anyone who can't embrace a few differences isn't cut out to a doctor."
"Maybe you're right," Dal said. "I'm not really sure what to do next though. I mean, in a regular Earthman conversation. I haven't had a lot of practice."
"Well we'll just have to work on that," Tiger smiled. "I usually just ask questions. It's a good way to get started with anyone. Go ahead, ask me anything."
"Alright." Dal considered thoughtfully. "This is probably going to sound really silly, but I'm still having a hard time with some parts of the language, and I've been trying to understand ever since looking it up last year."
"I might not be the best person to ask about a medical term," Tiger stopped him. "I'm struggling right along with everyone else."
But Dal shook his head. "No, it's about what you said when you sat down. What is a pirate, and why would there be any here?"
For a moment Tiger thought his new friend was pulling his leg. Then realizing his hesitation might be misinterpreted, he quickly spoke up. "We are definitely going to need to spend more time together to teach you about pirates. Tell you what: I'll get a movie night put together, and you help me study for my next anatomy exam. Deal?"
"Great. Well I've got to go face the afternoon's torment. Thanks again for saving me a seat Dal!" Tiger waved as he left the lounge, pitching his voice a little higher to catch some of the other departing students' ears. "See you tomorrow." He ignored the surprised looks, walking up to some classmates with an extra bounce in his step. "Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend?"