« The colors of space », Chapter 10   

Chapter 10

The green-sun Meristem lay far behind them. Karol's burns had healed; only a faint pattern on Ringg's forehead showed where six stitches had closed the ugly wound in his skull. Bart's wrist, after a few days of nightmarish pain when he tried to pick up anything heavy, had healed. Two more warp-drive shifts through space had taken the Swiftwing far, far out to the rim of the known galaxy, and now the great crimson coal of Antares burned in their viewports.

Antares had twelve planets, the outermost of which—far away now, at the furthest point in its orbit from the point of the Swiftwing's entry into the system—was a small captive sun. No larger than the planet Earth, it revolved every ninety years around its huge primary.

Small as it was, it was blazingly blue-white brilliant, and had a tiny planet of its own. After their stop on Antares Seven—the largest of the inhabited planets in this system, where the Lhari spaceport was located—they would make a careful orbit around the great red primary, and land on the tiny worldlet of the blue-white secondary before leaving the Antares system.

As Bart watched Antares growing in the viewports, he felt a variety of emotions. On the one hand, he was relieved that as his voyage in secrecy neared its official destination, he had as yet not incurred unmasking.

But he felt uncertain about his father's co-conspirators. Would they return him to human form and send him back to Vega, his part ended? Or would they, unthinkably, demand that he go on into the Lhari Galaxy? What would he do, if they did?

At one moment he entertained fantasies of going on into the Lhari worlds, returning victorious with the secret of their fueling location, or of the star-drive itself. At another, he could not wait to be free of it all. He longed for the society of his own people, yet ached to think that this voyage between the stars must end so soon.

They made planetfall at the largest Lhari spaceport Bart had seen; as always, the Second Officer was the first to go through Decontam and ashore, returning with exchanged mail and messages for the Swiftwing's crew. He laughed when he gave Bartol a sealed packet. "So you're not quite the orphan we've always thought!"

Bart took it, his heart suddenly pounding, and walked away through the groups of officers and crew eagerly debating how they would spend their port leave. He knew what it would be.

It was on the letterhead of Eight Colors, and it contained no message. Only an address—and a time.

He slipped away unobserved to the Mentorian part of the ship to borrow a cloak from Meta. She did not ask why he wanted it, and stopped him when he would have told her. "I'd—rather not know."

She looked very small and very scared, and Bart wished he could comfort her, but he knew she would shrink from him, repelled and horrified by his Lhari skin, hair, claws.

Yet she reached for his hand, gripping it hard in her own dainty one. "Bartol, be careful," she whispered, then stopped. "Bartol—that's a Lhari name. What's your real one?"

"Bart. Bart Steele."

"Good luck, Bart." There were tears in her gray eyes.

With the blue cloak folded around his face, hands tucked in the slits at the side, he felt almost like himself. And as the strange crimson twilight folded down across the streets, laden with spicy smells and little, fragrant gusts of wind, he almost savored the sense of being a conspirator, of playing for high stakes in a network of intrigue between the stars. He was off on an adventure, and meant to enjoy it.

The address he had been given was a lavish estate, not far from the spaceport, across a little gleaming lake that shimmered red, indigo, violet in the crimson sunset, surrounded by a low wall of what looked like purple glass. Bart, moving slowly through the gate, felt that eyes were watching him, and forced himself to walk with slow dignity.

Up the path. Up a low flight of black-marble stairs. A door swung open and shut again, closing out the red sunset, letting him into a room that seemed dim after the months of Lhari lights. There were three men in the room, but his eyes were drawn instantly to one, standing against an old-fashioned fireplace.

He was very tall and quite thin, and his hair was snow-white, though he did not look old. Bart's first incongruous thought was, He'd make a better Lhari than I would. His firm, commanding voice told Bart at once that this was the man in charge. "You are Bartol?" He extended his hand.

Bart took it—and found himself gripped in a judo hold. The other two men, leaping to place behind him, felt all over his body, not gently.

"No weapons, Montano."

"Look here—"

"Save it," Montano said. "If you're the right person, you'll understand. If not, you won't have much time to resent it. A very simple test. What color is that divan?"

"Green."

"And those curtains?"

"Darker green, with gold and red figures."

The men released him, and the white-haired man smiled.

"So you actually did it, Steele! I thought for sure the code message was a fake." He stepped back and looked Bart over from head to foot, whistling. "Raynor Three is a genius! Claws and everything! What a deuce of a risk to take though!"

"You know my name," Bart said, "but who are you?"

Suspicion came back into the dark eyes. "Does that Mentorian cloak mean—you've lost your memories, too?"

"No," said Bart, "it's simpler than that. I'm not Rupert Steele. I'm—" his voice caught—"I'm his son."

The man looked startled and shocked. "I suppose that means Rupert is dead. Dead! It came a little before he expected it, then. So you're Bart." He sighed. "My name's Montano. This is Hedrick, and I suppose you recognize Raynor Two."

Bart blinked. It was the same face, but it was not grim like Raynor One's, nor expressive and kindly like that of Raynor Three. This one just looked dangerous.

"But sit down," Montano said with a wave of his hand, "make yourself comfortable."

Hedrick relieved Bart of his cloak; Raynor Two put a cup of some steaming drink in his hand, passed him a tray of small hot fried things that tasted crisp and delicious. Bart relaxed, answering questions. How old? Only seventeen? And you came all alone on a Lhari ship, working your way as Astrogator? I must say you've got guts, kid! It was dangerously like the fantasy he had invented. But Montano interrupted at last.

"All right, this isn't a party and we haven't all night. I don't suppose Bart has either. Enough time wasted. Since you walked into this, young Steele, I take it you know what our plans are, after this?"

Bart shook his head. "No. Raynor Three sent me to call off your plans, because of my father—"

"That sounds like Three," interrupted Raynor Two. "Entirely too squeamish!"

Montano said irritably, "We couldn't have done anything without a man on the Swiftwing, and you know it. We still can't. Bart, I suppose you know about Lharillis."

"Not by that name."

"Your next stop. The planetoid of the captive sun. That little hunk of bare rock out there is the first spot the Lhari visited in this galaxy—even before Mentor. It's an inferno of light from that little blue-white sun, so of course they love it—it's just like home to them. When they found that the inner planets of Antares were inhabited, they built their spaceport here, so they'd have a better chance at trade." Montano scowled fiercely.

"But they wanted that little worldlet. So we went all over it to be sure there were no rare minerals there, and finally leased it to them, a century at a time. They mine the place for some kind of powdered lubricant that's better than graphite—it's all done by robot machinery, no one's stationed there. Every time a Lhari ship comes through this system they stop there, even though there's nothing on Lharillis except a landing field and some concrete bunkers filled with robot mining machinery. They'll stop there on the way out of this system—and that's where you come in. We need you on board, to put the radiation counter out of commission."

He took a chart from a drawer, spread it out on a table top. "The simplest way would be to cut these two wires. When the Lhari land, we'll be there, waiting for them. On board the Lhari ship, there must be full records—coordinates of their home world, of where they go for their catalyst fuel—all that."

Bart whistled. "But won't the crew defend the ship? You can't fight energon-ray guns!"

Montano's face was perfectly calm. "No. We won't even try." He handed Bart a small strip of pale-yellow plastic.

"Keep this out of sight of the Mentorians," he said. "The Lhari won't be able to see the color, of course. But when it turns orange, take cover."

"What is it?"

"Radiation-exposure film. It's exactly as sensitive to radiation as you are. When it starts to turn orange, it's picking up radiation. If you're aboard the ship, get into the drive chambers—they're lead-lined—and you'll be safe. If you're out on the surface, you'll be all right inside one of the concrete bunkers. But get under cover before it turns red, because by that time every Lhari of them will be stone-cold dead."

Bart let the strip of plastic drop, staring in disbelief at Montano's cold, cruel face. "Kill them? Kill a whole shipload of them? That's murder!"

"Not murder. War."

"We're not at war with the Lhari! We have a treaty with them!"

"The Federation has, because they don't dare do anything else," Montano said, his face taking on the fanatic's light, "but some of us dare do something, some of us aren't going to sit forever and let them strangle all humanity, hold us down, let us die! It's war, Bart, war for economic survival. Do you suppose the Lhari would hesitate to kill anyone if we did anything to hurt their monopoly of the stars? Or didn't they tell you about David Briscoe, how they hunted him down like an animal—"

"But how do we know that was Lhari policy, and not just—some fanatic?" Bart asked suddenly. He thought of the death of the elder Briscoe, and as always he shivered with the horror of it, but for the first time it came to him: Briscoe had provoked his own death. He had physically attacked the Lhari—threatened them, goaded them to shoot him down in self-defense! "I've been on shipboard with them for months. They're not wanton murderers."

Raynor Two made a derisive sound. "Sounds like it might be Three talking!"

Hedrick growled, "Why waste time talking? Listen, young Steele, you'll do as you're told, or else! Who gave you the right to argue?"

"Quiet, both of you." Montano came and laid his arm around Bart's shoulders, persuasively. "Bart, I know how you feel. But can't you trust me? You're Rupert Steele's son, and you're here to carry on what your father left undone, aren't you? If you fail now, there may not be another chance for years—maybe not in our lifetimes."

Bart dropped his head in his hands. Kill a whole shipload of Lhari—innocent traders? Bald, funny old Rugel, stern Vorongil, Ringg—

"I don't know what to do!" It was a cry of despair. Bart looked helplessly around at the men.

Montano said, almost tenderly, "You couldn't side with the Lhari against men, could you? Could a son of Rupert Steele do that?"

Bart shut his eyes, and something seemed to snap within him. His father had died for this. He might not understand Montano's reasons, but he had to believe that Montano had them.

"All right," he said, thickly, "you can count on me."

When he left Montano's house, he had the details of the plan, had memorized the location of the device he was to sabotage, and accepted, from Montano, a pair of dark contact lenses. "The light's hellish out there," Montano warned. "I know you're half Mentorian, but they don't even take their Mentorians out there. They're proud of saying no human foot has ever touched Lharillis."

When he got back to the Lhari spaceport, Ringg hailed him. "Where have you been? I hunted the whole port for you! I wouldn't join the party till you came. What's a pal for?"

Bart brushed by him without speaking, disregarding Ringg's surprised stare, and went up the ramp. He reached his own cabin and threw himself down in his bunk, torn in two.

Ringg was his friend! Ringg liked him! And if he did what Montano wanted, Ringg would die.

Ringg had followed him, and was standing in the cabin door, watching him in surprise. "Bartol, is something the matter? Is there anything I can do? Have you had more bad news?"

Bart's torn nerves snapped. He raised his head and yelled at Ringg, "Yes, there is something! You can quit following me around and just let me alone for a change!"

Ringg took a step backward. Then he said, very softly, "Suit yourself, Bartol. Sorry." And noiselessly, his white crest held high, he glided away.

Bart's resolve hardened. Loneliness had done odd things to him—thinking of Ringg, a Lhari, one of the freaks who had killed his father, as a friend! If they knew who he was, they would turn on him, hunt him down as they'd hunted Briscoe, as they'd hunted his father, as they'd hounded him from Earth to Procyon. He put his scruples aside. He'd made up his mind.

They could all die. What did he care? He was human and he was going to be loyal to his own kind.