« The colors of space », Chapter 11   

Chapter 11

But although he thought he had settled all the conflict, he found that it returned when he was lying in his bunk, or when he stood in the dome and watched the stars, while they moved through the Antares system toward the captive sun and the tiny planet Lharillis.

It's in my power to give this to all men… .

Should a few Lhari stand in his way?

He lay in his bunk brooding, thinking of death, staring at the yellow radiation badge. If you fail, it won't be in our lifetime. He'd have to go back to little things, to the little ships that hauled piddling cargo between little planets, while all the grandeur of the stars belonged to the Lhari. And if he succeeded, Vega Interplanet could spread from star to star, a mighty memorial to Rupert Steele.

One day Vorongil sent for him. "Bartol," he said, and his voice was not unkind, "you and Ringg have always been good friends, so don't be angry about this. He's worried about you—says you spend all your spare time in your bunk growling at him. Is there anything the matter, feathertop?"

He sounded so concerned, so—the word struck Bart with hysterical humor—so fatherly, that Bart wanted insanely to laugh and to cry. Instead he muttered, "Ringg should mind his own business."

"But it's not like that," Vorongil said. "Look, the Swiftwing's a world, young fellow, and a small one. If one being in that world is unhappy, it affects everyone."

Bart had an absurd, painful impulse—to blurt out the incredible truth to Vorongil, and try to get the old Lhari to understand what he was doing.

But fear held him silent. He was alone, one small human in a ship of Lhari. Vorongil was frowning at him, and Bart mumbled, "It's nothing, rieko mori."

"I suppose you're pining for home," Vorongil said kindly. "Well, it won't be long now."

The glare of the captive sun grew and grew in the ports, and Bart's dread mounted. He had, as yet, had no opportunity to put the radiation counter out of order. It was behind a panel in the drive room, and try as he might, he could think of no way to get to it unobserved. Sometimes, in sleepless nights, it seemed that would be the best way. Just let it go. But then the Lhari would detect Montano's ship, and kill Montano and his men.

Did he believe that? He had to believe it. It was the only way he could possibly justify what he was doing.

And then his chance came, as so many chances do when one no longer wants them. The Second Officer met him at the beginning of one watch, saying worriedly, "Bartol, old Rugel's sick—not fit to be on his feet. Do you think you can hold down this shift alone, if I drop in and give you a hand from time to time?"

"I think so," Bart said, carefully not overemphasizing it. The Second Officer, by routine, spent half of his time in the drive room, and half his time down below in Maintenance. When he left, Bart knew he would have at least half an hour, uninterrupted, in the drive room. He ripped open the panel, located the wires and hesitated; he didn't quite dare to cut them outright.

He jerked one wire loose, frayed the other with a sharp claw until it was almost in shreds and would break with the first surge of current, pulled two more connections loose so that they were not making full contact. He closed the panel and brushed dust over it, and when the Second Officer came back, Bart was at his own station.

As Antares fell toward them in the viewport, he found himself worrying about Mentorians. They would be in cold sleep, presumably in a safe part of the ship, behind shielding, or Montano would have made provisions for them. Still, he wished there were a way to warn Meta.

He was not on watch when they came into the planetary field of Lharillis, but when he came on shift, he knew at once that the trouble had been located. The panel was pulled open, the exposed wires hanging, and Ringg was facing old Rugel, shouting, "Listen, Baldy, I won't have you accusing me of going light on my work! I checked those panels eight days ago! Tell me who's going to be opening the panels in here anyhow?"

"No, no," Rugel said patiently, "I'm not accusing you of anything, only being careless, young Ringg. You poke with those buzzing instruments and things, maybe once you tear loose some wires."

Bart remembered he wasn't supposed to know what was going on. "What's this all about?"

It was Rugel who answered. "The radiation counter—the planetary one, not the one we use in space—is out of order. We don't even need it this landing—there's no radiation on Lharillis. If it were the landing gear, now, that would be serious. I'm just trying to tell Ringg—"

"He's trying to say I didn't check it." Ringg was not to be calmed. "It's my professional competence—"

"Forget it," Bart said. "If Rugel isn't sore about it, and if we don't need it for landing, why worry?" He felt like Judas.

"Just take a look at my daybook," Ringg insisted, "I checked and marked it service fit! I tell you, somebody was blundering around, opening panels where they had no business, tore it out by accident, then was too much of a filthy sneak to report it and get it fixed!"

"Bartol was on watch alone one night," said the Second Officer, "but you wouldn't meddle with panels, would you, Bartol?"

Bart set his teeth, steadying his breathing, as Ringg turned hopefully to him. "Bartol, did you—by mistake, maybe? Because if you did, it won't count against your rating, but it means a black mark against mine!"

Bart hid his self-contempt in sudden, tense fury. "No, I didn't! You're going to accuse everybody on the Swiftwing, all the way from me to Vorongil, before you can admit a mistake, aren't you? If you want somebody to blame, look in a mirror!"

"Listen, you!" Ringg's pent-up rage exploded. He seized Bart by the shoulder and Bart moved to throw him off, so that Ringg's outthrust claws raked only his forearm. In pure reflex he felt his own claws flick out; they clinched, closed, scuffled, and he felt his claws rake flesh; half incredulous, saw the thin red line of blood welling from Ringg's cheek.

Then Rugel's arms were flung restrainingly around him, and the Second Officer was wrestling with a furious, struggling Ringg. Bart looked at his red-tipped claws in ill-concealed horror, but it was lost in a general gasp of consternation, for Vorongil had flung the drive room door open, taking in the scene in one blistering glance.

"What's going on down here?"

For the first time, Bart understood Vorongil's reputation as a tyrant. One glance at Ringg's bleeding face and Bart's ripped forearm, and he did not pause for breath for a good fifteen minutes. By the time he finished, Bart felt he would rather Ringg's claws had laid him bleeding to the bone than stand there in the naked contempt of the old Lhari's freezing eyes.

"Half-fledged nestlings trying to do a man's work! So someone forgot the panel, or damaged the panel by mistake—no, not another word," he commanded, as Ringg's crest came proudly up. "I don't care who did what! Any more of this, and the one who does it can try his claws on the captain of the Swiftwing!" He looked ugly and dangerous. "I thought better of you both. Get below, you squalling kittens! Let me not see your faces again before we land!"

As they went along the corridor, Ringg turned to Bart, apology and chagrin in his eyes. "Look—I never meant to get the Bald One down on us," he said, but Bart kept his face resolutely averted. It was easier this way, without pretense of friendship.

The light from the small captive sun grew more intense. Bart had never known anything like it, and was glad to slip away and put the dark contact lenses into his eyes. They made his eyes appear all enormous, dilated pupil; fearfully, he hoped no one would notice. His arm smarted, and he did not speak to Ringg all through the long, slow deceleration.

When the intercom ordered all crew members to the hatchway, Bart lingered a minute, pinning the yellow radiation badge in a fold of his cloak. A spasm of fear threatened to overwhelm him again, and nightmarish loneliness. He felt agonizingly homesick for his own familiar face. It seemed almost more than he could manage, to step out into the corridor full of Lhari.

It won't be long now.

The hatch opened. Even accustomed, as he was, to Lhari lights, Bart squeezed his eyes shut at the blue-white brilliance that assaulted him now. Then, opening slitted lids cautiously, he found that he could see.

A weirdly desolate scene stretched away before them. Bare, burning sand, strewn with curiously colored rocks, lay piled in strange chaos; then he realized there was an odd, but perceptible geometry to their arrangement. They showed alternate crystal and opaque faces. Old Rugel noted his look of surprise.

"Never been here before? That's right, you've always worked on the Polaris run. Well, those aren't true rocks, but living creatures of a sort. The crystals are alive; the opaque faces are lichens that have something like chlorophyll and can make their food from air and sunlight. The rocks and lichens live in symbiosis. They have intelligence of a sort, but fortunately they don't mind us, or our automatic mining machinery. Every time, though, we find some new lichen that's trying to set up a symbiote cycle with the concrete of our bunkers."

"And every time," Ringg said cheerfully, "somebody—usually me—has to see about having them scraped down and repainted. Maybe someday I'll find a paint the lichens don't like the taste of."

"Going to explore with Ringg?" Rugel asked, and Ringg, always ready to let bygones be bygones, grinned and said, "Sure!" Bart could not face him.

Vorongil stopped and said, "This your first time here, young Bartol? How would you like to visit the monument with me? You can see the machinery on the way back."

Relieved at not having to go with Ringg, he followed the captain, falling into step beside him. They moved in silence, along the smooth stone path.

"The crystal creatures made this road," Vorongil said at last. "I think they read minds a little. There used to be a very messy, rocky desert here, and we used to have to scrabble and scratch our way to the monument. Then one day a ship—not mine—touched down and discovered that there was a beautiful smooth road leading up to the monument. And the lichens never touch that stone—but you probably had all this in school. Excited, Bartol?"

"No—no, sir. Why?"

"Eyes look a bit odd. But who could blame you for being excited? I never come here without remembering Rhazon and his crew on that long jump. The longest any Lhari captain ever made. A blind leap in the dark, remember, Bartol. Through the dark, through the void, with his own crew cursing him for taking the chance! No one had ever crossed between galaxies—and remember, they were using the Ancient Math!"

He paused, and Bart said through a catch of breath. "Quite an achievement." His badge still looked reassuringly yellow.

"You young people have no sense of wonder," Vorongil said. "Not that I blame you. You can't realize what it was like in those days. Oh, we'd had star-travel for centuries, we were beginning to stagnate. And now look at us! Oh, they derided Rhazon—said that even if he did find anyone, any other race, they'd be monsters with whom we could never communicate. But here we have a whole new galaxy for peaceful trade, a new mathematics that takes all the hazard out of space travel, our Mentorian friends and allies." He smiled. "Don't tell the High Council on me, but I think they deserve a lot more credit than most Lhari care to give them. Between ourselves, I think the next Panarch may see it that way."

Vorongil paused. "Here's the monument."

It lay between the crystal columns, tall, of pale blue sandstone, with letters in deep shadow of such contrast that the Lhari could read them: a high, sheer, imposing stele. Vorongil read the words slowly aloud in the musical Lhari language:

"'Here, with thanks to Those who Watch the Great Night, I, Rhazon of Nedrun, raise a stone of memory. Here we first do touch the new worlds. Let us never again fear to face the unknown, trusting that the Mind of All Knowledge still has many surprises in store for all the living.'

"I think I admire courage more than anything there is, Bartol. Who else could have dared it? Doesn't it make you proud to be a Lhari?"

Bart had felt profoundly moved; now he snapped back to awareness of who he was and what he was doing. So only the Lhari had courage? Life has surprises, all right, Captain, he thought grimly.

He glanced down at the badge strip of plastic on his arm. It began to tinge faint orange as he looked, and a chill of fear went over him. He had to get away somehow—get to cover!

He looked round and his fear was almost driven from his mind. "Captain, the rocks! They're moving!"

Vorongil said, unruffled, "Why, so they are. They do, you know; they have intelligence of a sort. Though I've never actually seen them move before, I know they shift places overnight. I wonder what's going on?" They were edging back, the path widening and changing. "Oh, well, maybe they're going to do some more landscaping for us. I once knew a captain who swore they could read his mind."

Bart saw the slow, inexorable deepening of his badge—he had to get away. He tensed, impatient; gripped by fists of panic. Somewhere on this world, Montano and his men were setting up their lethal radiations… .

Think of this: a Lhari ship of our own to study, to know how it works, to see the catalyst and find out where it comes from, to read their records and star routes. Now we know we can use it without dying in the warp-drive… .

Think of this: to be human again, yet to travel the stars with men of my own race!

It's worth a few deaths!

Even Vorongil? Standing here, talking to him, he might—say it! You talked to him as if he'd been your father! Oh, Dad, Dad, what would you do?

His voice was steady, as he said, "It's very good of you to show me all this, sir, but the other men will call me a slacker. Hadn't I better get to a work detail?"

"Hm, maybe so, feathertop," Vorongil said. "Let me see—well, down this way is the last row of bunkers. See the humps? You can check inside to see if they're full or empty and save us the trouble of exploring if they're all empty. Have a look round inside if you care to—the robot machinery's interesting."

Bart tensed; he had wondered how he'd get hidden inside, but he asked, "Not locked?"

"Locked?" The old Lhari's short, yellowed crest bobbed in surprise. "Why? Who ever comes here but our ships? And what could we do with the stuff but take it back with us? Why locked? You've been on the drift too long—among those thieving humans! It's time you got back to live among decent folk again. Well, go along."

The sting of the words stiffened Bart as he took his leave. The color of the badge seemed deeper orange… .

When it's red, you're dead.

It's true. The Lhari don't steal. They don't even seem to understand dishonesty.

But they lied—lied to us all… .

Knowing what we were like, maybe! That we'd steal their ships, their secrets, their lives!

The deepening color of the badge seemed the one visible thing in a strange glaring world. He walked along the row of bunkers, realizing he need not check if they were full or empty—the Lhari wouldn't live long enough to harvest their better-than-graphite lubricant. They'd be dead.

The last bunker was empty. He looked at his orange badge and stepped inside, heart pounding so loudly he thought it was an external sound—it was an external sound, a step.

"Don't move one inch," said a voice in Universal, and Bart froze, trembling. He looked cautiously round.

Montano stood there, spacesuited, his head bare, dark contact lenses blurring his eyes. And in his hand a drawn blaster was held level—trained straight at Bart's heart.