« The colors of space », Chapter 12   

Chapter 12

After the first moment of panic, Bart realized Montano could not tell him from a Lhari. He remained motionless. "It's me, Montano—Bart Steele."

The man lowered the weapon and put it away. "You nearly got yourself cut down," he said. "Did you make it all right?" He crossed behind Bart, inspecting the fastenings of the bunker.

"It's just luck I didn't shoot you first and ask questions afterward." Montano drew a deep breath and sat down on the concrete floor. "Anyway, we're safe in here. We've got about half an hour before the radiation will reach lethal intensity. It has a very short half-life, though; only about twelve minutes. If we spend an hour in here, we'll be safe enough. Did you have any trouble putting the radiation counter out of commission?"

So in half an hour they would all be dead. Ringg, Rugel, Captain Vorongil. Two dozen Lhari, all dead so that Montano could have a Lhari ship to play with.

And what then? More killing, more murder? Would Montano start killing everyone who tried to get the secret of the drive from him? The Lhari had the star-drive; maybe it belonged to them, maybe not. Maybe humans had a right to have it, too. But this wasn't the right way. Maybe they didn't deserve it.

He turned to look at Montano. The man was leaning back, whistling softly through his teeth. He felt like telling Montano that he couldn't go through with it. He started to speak, then stopped, his blood icing over.

If I try to argue with him, I'll never get out of here alive. It means too much to him.

Do I just salve my conscience with that then? Sit here and let them die?

With a shock of remembrance, it came to Bart that he had a weapon. He was armed, this time, with the energon-beam that was part of his uniform. Montano had evidently forgotten it. Could he kill Montano? Even to save two dozen Lhari?

He reached hesitantly toward the beam-gun, quickly thumbed the catch down to the lowest point, which was simple shock. He froze as Montano looked in his direction, hand out of sight under his cloak.

"How many Lhari on board?"

"Twenty-three, and three Mentorians."

"Anyone apt to be behind shielding—say, in the drive chamber?"

"No, I think they're all outside."

Montano nodded, idly. "Then we won't have to worry."

Bart slipped his hand toward his weapon. Montano saw the movement, cocked his head in question; then, as understanding flashed over his face, his hand darted to his own gun. But Bart had pressed the charge of his, and Montano slumped over without a cry. He looked so limp that Bart gasped. Was he dead? Hastily he fumbled the lax hand for a pulse. After a long, endless moment he saw Montano's chest twitch and knew the man was breathing.

Well, Montano would be safe here in the bunker. Hastily, Bart looked at his timepiece. Half an hour before the radiation was lethal—for the Lhari. Was it already, for him? Shakily, he unfastened the door. He ran out into the glare, seeing as he ran that his badge was tinged with an ever-darkening, gold, orange… .

Montano had said there was a safety margin, but maybe he was wrong, maybe all Bart would accomplish would be his own death! He ran back along the line of bunkers, his heart pounding with his racing feet. Two crewmen came along the line, young white-crested Lhari from the other watch. He gasped, "Where is the captain?"

"Down that way—what's wrong, Bartol?" But Bart was gone, his muscles aching with the unaccustomed effort inside gravity. Putting on speed, he saw the tall, austere shape of Vorongil, his banded cloak dark against the glaring light. Vorongil turned, startled, at the sound of his running feet.

Suddenly, Bart realized that he was still holding his energon-ray. In shock and revulsion, he dropped it at Vorongil's feet.

"Captain, go warn the men! They'll all be dead in half an hour! There are lethal radiations—"

"What? Are you sunstruck?"

Bart stopped cold. Never once had it crossed his mind what he would say to Vorongil or how he would make the captain believe his story, without revealing Montano. He started to hold up his badge, realized the Lhari captain could not see color, and dropped it again, while Vorongil bent over to pick up the fallen gun. "Are you sunstruck or mad, Bartol? What's this babble?"

"Captain, everybody on the Swiftwing—"

"And speak Lhari!" Vorongil demanded, and Bart realized that in his excitement he had been shouting in Universal. He drew a long, deep breath.

"Captain, there are lethal radiations being released here," he said. "You have just barely half an hour to gather all the men and get them behind shielding."

"The radiation counter is out of order," Vorongil remarked, unruffled. "How can you possibly know—"

Bart stood in despair. Could he say, A ship has landed here? Could he say, Check that bunker? Even if Montano was a would-be murderer, he was human, and Bart could not betray him to the Lhari. There had been too much betrayal. His voice rose in sudden hysteria.

"Captain, there's no time! I tell you, you'll all be dead if you don't believe me! Get the men into the ship! Get them behind shielding and then check my story! I'm not—" he had gone this far, he might as well go the whole way—"I'm not a Lhari!"

"What?"

One of the crewmen came dashing up, his crest sweat-streaked. "Captain! Rugel has collapsed! We don't know what's wrong with him."

"Radiation sickness," said Bart, and Vorongil reached out, catching his shoulder in a cruel taloned grip. Bart said desperately "I'm not a Lhari! I signed on in disguise—I knew they meant to take the ship, but I can't let you all die.

"How can I make you believe me? Here—" In desperation, Bart reached up. Pain stabbed his eyeballs, fierce, blinding, as he pulled out one of the contact lenses. He could not see the captain's face through the light, but suddenly two Lhari were holding his arms. The fear of death was on Bart, but it no longer mattered. He saw through watering eyes the ever-deepening orange of the badge disappearing.

"Here," he said, tearing at it, "radiation. You must be able to see how dark it is. Even if it's just darkness… ."

Suddenly Vorongil was shouting, but Bart could not hear. Two men were dragging him along. They hustled him up the ramp of the ship. He could see again, but his eyes were blurred, and he felt sick, colors spinning before his eyes, a nauseated ringing in his head.

At first he thought it was his ears ringing; then he made out the rising, shrieking wail and fall of the emergency siren, steps running, shouting voices, the slow clang of the doors. Someone was pushing at him, babbling words in Lhari, but he heard them through an ever-increasing distance: Vorongil's face bent over his, only a blurred crimson blob that flashed away like a vanishing star in the viewport. It flamed out into green darkness, vanished, and Bart fell through what seemed to be a bottomless chasm of starless night.

When he woke, acceleration had its crushing hand on his chest. He tried to move, discovered that he was strapped hard into a bunk, and fainted again.

Suddenly the pressure was gone and he was lying at ease on the smooth sheets of a hospital bunk. His eyes were covered with a light bandage, and there was a sharp pain in his left arm. He tried to move it and found it was tied down.

"I think he's coming round," said Vorongil's voice.

"Yes, and a lot too soon for me," said a bitter voice which Bart recognized as that of the ship's medic. "Freak!"

"Listen, Baldy," said Vorongil, "whoever he is, he could have been blinded or killed. You wouldn't be alive now if it wasn't for that freak, as you call him. Bartol, can you hear me? How much light can your eyes stand?"

"As much as any Mentorian." Bart found he could move his right arm, and twitched the bandage away. Vorongil and the medic stood over him; in the other infirmary bunk a form was lying, covered with a white sheet. Sickly, Bart wondered if they had found Montano. Vorongil followed the direction of his eyes.

"Yes," he said, and his voice held deep bitterness, "poor old Rugel is dead. He didn't get much of the radiation, but his heart wouldn't stand it, and gave out." He bowed his head. "He was bald in the service of the ships when my crest was new-sprouted," he said in deep grief.

Bart felt the shock of that, even through his own fear. He looked down at his left arm. It was strapped to a splint, and fluid was dripping slowly into the vein there.

Vorongil nodded. "I expect you feel pretty sick. You got a good dose of radiation yourself, but we've given you a couple of transfusions—one of the Mentorians matched your blood type, fortunately. It was a close call."

The medic was looking down in ill-disguised curiosity. "Fantastic," he said. "I don't suppose you'd tell me who changed your looks. I admit I wouldn't believe it until I had a look at your foot bones under the fluoroscope."

Vorongil said quietly, "Bartol—I don't suppose that's your real name—why did you do it?"

"I couldn't see you all die, sir," Bart said, not expecting them to believe him. "No more than that."

The medic said roughly in Lhari, "It's a trick, sir, no more. A trick to make us trust him!"

"Why would he risk his own life then?" Vorongil asked. "No, it's more than that." He hesitated. "We checked the bunkers—in radiation suits—before we took off. We found a man in one of them."

"Was he dead?" Bart whispered.

"No," Vorongil said quietly.

"Thank God!" It was a heartfelt explosion. Then, apprehensively, "Or did you kill him?"

"What do you think we are?" Vorongil said incredulously. "Indeed no. His own men have probably found him by now. I don't imagine he got half as much radiation as you did."

Bart surveyed the needle in his arm. "Why are you taking all this trouble if I'm going to be put out of the way?"

"You must have some funny ideas about us," Vorongil said shaking his head. "That would be a fine way to reward you for saving all of our lives. No, you're not going to be killed."

"If I had my way—" the old medic began, and suddenly Vorongil flew into a rage. "Get out!"

The medic went stiffly through the door, and Vorongil stood gazing down at Bart, shaking his yellowed crest. "I don't know what to say to you. It was a brave thing you did, but perhaps no braver than you've done all along. Are you a Mentorian?"

"Only half."

"Strange," Vorongil said, looking into space, "that I could talk to you as I did by the monument, and you knew what I meant. But, yes, you would understand." Abruptly, he recalled himself, and his voice was thin and cold.

"I haven't quite decided what to do. I haven't spoken of this to the crew yet; the fewer who know about this, the better. I told them you got a heavy dose of radiation, and you're too sick to see visitors." He sounded kinder when he said, "It's true, you know. It won't hurt you to get your strength back."

He went out, and Bart wondered, Get my strength back for what? He lay back, feeling weaker than he realized. It was a relief to know he wasn't going to be killed out of hand. And somehow he didn't believe he was going to be killed at all.

It wasn't like being a prisoner. The medic brought him plenty of food, urging him to eat—"You need plenty of protein after radiation burns"—and if he stayed in the bunk, it was only because he felt too weak to get up. Actually he was suffering from delayed emotional shock, as well as from radiation. He was content to let things drift.

Inevitably, the time came when he had to think about what he had done. He had betrayed Montano, he had been false to the men who sent him.

"But they don't know the Lhari," his conscience replied, justifying what he had done.

You sided with the Lhari against your own people. You spoilt our chances of learning about the Lhari fuel catalyst.

"I've done something better than stealing a secret by stealth. I've proved that humans and Lhari can communicate, that they can trust each other. It's only their looks that are strange. A kind, generous man is a kind generous man, whether his name is Raynor Three or Vorongil."

But who's going to know it?

"I know it. And truth comes out, sooner or later. Somehow, a better understanding between man and Lhari will come from this."

Secure in the knowledge, he turned over and went peacefully to sleep.

When he woke again, he felt better. The Mentorian girl, Meta, was sitting quietly between the bunks, watching him. He started to turn over, flinched at the pain in his arm.

"Yes," she said, "we're giving you one last transfusion. Plasma, this time. It's Lhari, but if you know that much, you know it won't hurt you." She came and inspected the needle in his wrist, and Bart caught her hand with his free one. "Meta, does anyone else know?"

She looked down with a troubled smile. "I don't think so. I was off watch, waiting for cold-sleep—we're just about to make the long jump—when Vorongil came to my quarters. I was startled almost out of my wits. He asked if I could keep a secret; then he told me about you. Oh, Bart!" Her small soft hand closed convulsively on his, "I was so afraid! I knew they wouldn't kill you, but I was afraid!"

Yet they had killed David Briscoe, Bart thought, and hunted down two of his friends. It was the only thing he couldn't square with his perception of the Lhari. It didn't fit. He could understand that they had shot down the robotcab with Edmund Briscoe in it, in pure self-defense; and that knowledge had taken off the edge of the horror. But the death of young Briscoe and everyone he had talked to could not be explained away.

"You seem very sure they wouldn't have killed me, Meta," he said, carefully clasping his hand around hers.

"They wouldn't," she affirmed. "But they could—make you forget—"

A small chill went over Bart. He let go of her hand and lay staring bleakly at the wall. He supposed that was his probable fate: remembering the tragic tone of Raynor Three when he said I won't remember you, he gritted his teeth, feeling his face twist convulsively. Meta, watching, misunderstood.

"Arm hurting? I'll have that needle out of your vein in a few minutes now."

When she had freed his arm and put away the apparatus, she came to his side. "Bart, how did it happen? How did they find you out?"

Suddenly, the longing for human contact was too much for Bart, and the knowledge of his secret intolerable. The Lhari could find out what he knew, if they wanted to know, very simply; he was in their power. It didn't matter any more.

The telling of the story took a long time, and when he finished, Meta's soft small kitten-face was compassionate.

"I'm glad you—decided what you did," she whispered. "It's what a Mentorian would have done. I know that other races call us slaves of the Lhari. We aren't. We're working in our own way to show the Lhari that human beings can be trusted. The other peoples—they hold away from the Lhari, fighting them with words even though they're afraid to fight them with weapons, carrying on the war that they're afraid to fight!

"Did it ever occur to you—all the peoples of all the planets keep saying, We're as good as the Lhari, but only the Mentorians are willing to prove it? Bart, a Lhari ship can't get along in our galaxy without Mentorians any more! It may be slower than trying to take the warp-drive by force, or stealing it by spying, but when we learn to endure it, I have faith that we'll get it!"

Bart, although moved by Meta's philosophy, couldn't quite share it. It still seemed to him that the Mentorians were lacking in something—independence, maybe, or drive.

"I wasn't thinking about anything like that," he said honestly. "It was simply that I couldn't let them die. After all—" he was speaking more to himself than to the girl—"it's their star-drive. They found it. And they've given us star-trade, and star-travel, cheaply and with profit to both sides. I hope we'll get the star-drive someday. But if we got it by mass murder, it would sow the seeds of a hatred between men and Lhari that would never end. It wouldn't be worth it, Meta. Nothing would be worth that. We've got enough hate already."

Bart was still in his bunk, but beginning to fret at staying there, when the familiar trembling of Acceleration Two started to run through the ship. It was, by now, so familiar to him that he hardly gave it a second thought, but Meta panicked.

"What's happening? Bart, what is it? Why are we under acceleration again?"

"Shift to warp," he said without thinking, and her face went deathly white. "So that's it," she whispered. "Vorongil—no wonder he wasn't worried about what I would find out from you or what you knew." She drew herself together in her chair, a miserable, shrunken, terrified little figure, bravely trying to control her terror.

Then she held out her hands to Bart. "I'm—I'm ashamed," she whispered. "When you've been so brave, I shouldn't be afraid to die."

"Meta, what's the matter? What are you afraid of?" It suddenly swept over Bart what she meant and what she feared. "But don't you understand, Meta?" he exclaimed, "Humans can live through the warp-drive! No drugs, no cold-sleep—Meta, I've done it dozens of times!"

"But you're a Lhari!" It burst from her, uncontrollable. She stopped, looked at him in consternation. He smiled, bitterly.

"No, Meta, they didn't do a thing to my internal organs, to my brain, to the tissues of my body. Just a little plastic surgery on my hands, my feet and my face. Meta, there's nothing to be afraid of—nothing," he repeated.

She twisted her small hands together. "I'm—trying to—to believe that," she whispered, "but all my life I've known—"

The screaming whine in the ship gripped them with the strange, clawing lassitude and discomfort. Bart, gasping under it, heard the girl moan, saw her slump lax in her chair, half fainting. Her face was so deathly white that he began seriously to be afraid she would die of her fear. Fighting his own agonizing weakness, he pulled himself upright. He reached the girl, dug his claws cruelly into her.

"Girl, get hold of yourself! Fight it! Fight it! The more scared you are, the worse it's going to be!"

She was rigid, trembling, in a trance of terror.

"You rotten little coward," he yelled at her, "snap out of it! Or are all you Mentorians so gutless that you believe any half-baked folk tale the Lhari pass off on you? You and your fine talk about earning the star-drive! What would you do with it after you got it—if you die of fear when you try?"

"Oh! You—!" She flung her head back, her eyes blazing with rage. "Anything you can do, I can do, too!" He saw life flowing back into her face, and the trembling now was with fury, not fear; she was fighting the pain, the crawling itch in her nerve ends, the terrible sense of draining disorganization.

Bart felt his hold on himself breaking. He whispered hoarsely, "That's the girl—don't be scared if I—black out for a minute." He held on to consciousness with his last courage, afraid if he fainted, the girl would collapse again.

She reached for him, and Bart, starved for some human touch, drew her into his arms. They clung together, and he felt her wet face against his own, the softness of her trembling hands. She was still crying a little. Then the blackness closed on him, as if endless, and the gray blur of warp-drive peak blotted his brain into nothingness.

He came out of it to feel her cheek soft against his, her head trustfully on his shoulder. He said huskily, "All right, Meta?"

"I'm fine," she murmured, shakily. He tightened his hands a little, realizing that for the first time in months he had physically forgotten his Lhari disguise, that Meta had given him this priceless reassurance that he was human. But, as if suddenly aware of it again, she looked up at him and drew hesitantly away.

"Don't—Meta, am I so horrible to you then? So—repulsive?"

"No, it's only—" she bit her lip—"it's just that the Lhari are—I can't quite explain it."

"Different," Bart finished for her. "At first I was repelled—physically repelled by myself, and by them. It was like living among weird animals, and being one of the animals. And then, one day, Ringg was just another kid. He had gray skin and long claws and white hair, just the way I once had pinkish skin and short fingernails and reddish hair, but the difference wasn't that I was human inside and he wasn't. If you skinned Ringg, and skinned me, we'd be almost identical. And all of a sudden then, Ringg and Vorongil and all the rest were men to me. Just people. I thought you Mentorians, after living with the Lhari all these years, would feel that."

She said in slow wonder, "We've lived and worked side by side with them all these years, yet kept so apart! I've defended the Lhari to you, yet it took you to explain them to me!"

His arm was still round her, her head still lying on his shoulder. Bart was just beginning to wonder if he might kiss her when the infirmary door opened and Ringg stood in the doorway, staring at them with surprise, shock and revulsion. Bart realized, suddenly, how it must look to Ringg—who certainly shared Meta's prejudice—but even as he comprehended it, Ringg's face altered. Meta slipped from Bart's arms and rose, but Ringg came slowly a step into the room.

"I—remembered you had a bad reaction, to warp-drive," he said. "I came to see if you were all right. I would never have believed—but I'm beginning to guess. There was always something about you, Bartol." He shut the door behind him and stood against it. His voice lowered almost to a whisper, he said, "You're not Lhari, are you?"

"Vorongil knows," Bart said.

Ringg nodded. "That day on Lharillis. The crew was talking, but only one or two of them really know what happened. There are a dozen rumors. I wanted to see you. They said you were sick with radiation burns—"

"I was."

Ringg raised his hand, absently, to the still-puckered mark on his cheek, saw Bart watching him and smiled.

"You're not worrying about that fight? Forget it, friend. If anything, I admire someone who can use his claws—especially if, as I begin to suspect, they're not his." He leaned over, his hand lightly on Bart's shoulder. "I don't forget so easily. You saved my life, remember? And you're a hero on the ship for warning us all. Are you really human? Why not get rid of the disguise?"

Bart laughed wryly. "It won't come off," he said, and explained.

Ringg raised his hands to his own face curiously. "I wonder what sort of human I'd make?" He looked at Meta's small fingers. "Not that I'd ever have the nerve. But then, it's no surprise to anyone that you have courage, Bartol."

"You seem to accept it—"

"It's a shock," said Ringg honestly, "it scares me a little. But I'm remembering the friendship. That was real. As far as I'm concerned, it still is real."