« The colors of space », Chapter 14  

Chapter 14

The low rainbow building of Eight Colors, near the spaceport of Procyon Alpha, had not changed; and when Bart went in, as he had done a year ago, it seemed that the same varnished girl was sitting before the same glass desk, neon-edged and brittle, with the same chrome-tinged hair and blue fingernails. She looked at Bart in his Lhari clothing, at Meta in her Mentorian robe and cloak, at Ringg, and her unruffled dignity did not turn a hair.

"May I help you?" she inquired, still not caring.

"I want to see Raynor One."

"On what business, please?"

"Tell him," said Bart, with immense satisfaction, "that his boss is here—Bart Steele—and wants to see him right away."

It had a sort of disrupting effect. She seemed to go blurred at the edges. After a minute, blinking carefully, she spoke into the vision-screen, and reported, numbly, "Go on up, Mr. Steele."

He wasn't expecting a welcome. He said so as the elevator rose. "After all, if I'd never come back, he'd doubtless have inherited the whole Eight Colors line, unencumbered. I don't expect he'll be happy to see me. But he's the only one I can turn to."

The elevator stopped, opened. They stepped out, and a man stepped nervously toward them. For a moment, expecting Raynor One, Bart was deceived; then as the man's face spread in a smile of welcome, he stopped in incredulous delight.

"Raynor Three!"

In overflowing gladness, Bart hugged him. It was like a meeting with the dead. He felt as if he had really come home. "But—but you remember me!" he exclaimed, backing away, in amazement.

Slowly, the man nodded. His eyes were grave. "Yes. I decided it wasn't worth it, Bart, to go on losing everything that meant anything to me. Even if it meant I had to give up the stars, never travel again except as a passenger, I couldn't go on being afraid to remember, never knowing the consequences or responsibilities of what I'd done." His sad smile was strangely beautiful. "The Multiphase sailed without me. I've been here, hoping against hope that someday I'd know the rest."

Associations clicked into place in Bart's mind. The Multiphase. So Raynor Three was the Mentorian who had smuggled David Briscoe off the ship, and whose memories, wrung out by the Lhari captain of that ship, had touched off so many deaths. But he had paid for that—paid many times over. And now must he pay for this, too?

Raynor One strode toward them. "So it's really you. I thought it might be a trap, but Three wouldn't listen. Word came from Antares that Montano had been arrested and his ship confiscated for illegal landing on Lharillis. I thought you were probably dead."

"We sent a boy to do a man's job," Raynor Three said, "and he came back a man. But tell me—" He looked curiously at Ringg and Meta.

Bart introduced them, adding, "I came for help, really. I'm facing charges, and I'm afraid you are, too."

Raynor One said harshly, "A trap, after all, Three! He trapped you, and he's led the Lhari to you!"

"No," Raynor Three said, "or he wouldn't be walking around free and unguarded and with all his memories intact. Tell me about it, Bart." And when Bart had given a quick narration of the Lhari judgment, he nodded, slowly.

"That's all we ever wanted. Don't think you failed, Bart. The horrible part was only the way they were trying to keep it secret."

Ringg interrupted, "Do not judge the Lhari by them, Raynor Three," and Raynor Three said in good Lhari, "I don't, feathertop. Raynors have been working with Lhari since the days of Rhazon of Nedrus. But I wanted an open, official statement of Lhari policy—not secret murders by fanatics. I had confidence in the Lhari as a people, but not in individuals. What good did it do to know that the Lhari council in another galaxy would have condemned the murders and manhunts, when they were going on in this one, day after day?

"Don't you see, Bart?" he continued, "you didn't fail—not if we're going to have the publicity of a test case, publicly heard. That means the Lhari are prepared to admit, before our whole galaxy, that humans can survive warp-drive without cold-sleep. That's all David Briscoe was trying to prove, or your father either—may they rest in peace. So, whatever happens, we've won."

"If you two idealists will give me a minute for cold realities," Raynor One said, "there's this. Among other things. Bart's not yet of legal age. You may not know this, Bart, but your father appointed me your legal guardian. When I turned you over to Three, I'm afraid, I assumed legal responsibility for all the consequences. I ought to have kept you under my own supervision."

Bart smiled at Raynor One's stern face. "I crossed two galaxies, and faced the Lhari High Council, without you to hold my hand. I can face the Trade Federation."

"Naturally I will be responsible for your defense," Raynor One said stiffly.

"But I don't need a defense," Bart said, turning to Raynor Three and meeting his eyes. "I'm going to tell the truth, and let it stand. Don't worry, I'll make sure they don't hold you responsible for my actions."

"Another thing. Some lunatic from Capella arrived here and all but accused me of having you murdered. Do you know a Tommy Kendron?"

"Do I know him!" Bart interrupted with a joyful yell. "Tommy's here? Quick—where do I get in touch with him?"

An hour later they were all gathered at Raynor Three's country house. The talk went on far into the night. Tommy wanted to know everything, and both Raynors wanted to know every detail of Bart's year among the Lhari, while Meta and Ringg were both curious about how it had begun.

Bart tried to forget that the next day might bring trouble, even imprisonment. The Lhari Council had told him to talk as much as he liked about his voyage, and this might be his only chance. When he had finished, Tommy leaned forward and gripped Bart's hand tightly.

"You make them sound like pretty decent people," he said, looking at Ringg. "A year ago, if you'd told me I'd be here with a Lhari spaceman and a bunch of Mentorians, I'd never have believed it."

"Nor I, that I would be as friend under a human roof," Ringg replied. "But a friend to Bart is my friend also." He touched the faint discolored scars on his brow, saying softly, "But for Bart, I would not be here to greet anyone, man or Lhari, as friend."

"So," said Tommy triumphantly, "you haven't failed, even if you didn't discover the secret of the Eighth Color—"

But a sudden, blinding light burst over Bart as Ringg moved his hand to the scars. Once again he searched a cave beneath a green star, where Ringg lay unconscious and bleeding, and played his Lhari light fearfully over a waterfall of colored minerals. And there was one whose color he could not identify—red, blue, violet, green, none of these—the color of an unknown star in an unknown galaxy, the shimmer of a landing Lhari ship, the color of an unknown element in an unknown fuel—

"The secret of the Eighth Color," he said, and stood up, his hands literally shaking in excitement. "I'm an idiot! No, don't ask me any questions! I could still be wrong. But even if I go to a prison planet, the Eighth Color isn't a secret any more!"

When the others had gone back to the city, he sat with Raynor Three in the room where the latter had told him of his father's death, where he had first seen his terrifying Lhari face. They spoke little, but Raynor Three finally asked, "Were you serious about not wanting a defense, Bart?"

"I was. All I want is a chance to tell my own story in my own way. Where everyone will hear me."

Raynor Three looked at him curiously. "There's something you're not telling, Bart. Want to tell me?"

Bart hesitated, then held out his hand and clasped his kinsman's. "Thanks—but no."

Raynor Three saw his hesitation and chuckled. "All right, son. Forget I asked. You've grown up."

It was good to sleep in a soft human-type bed again, to eat breakfast and shave and dress in ordinary human clothing again. But Bart folded his Lhari tights and the cloak tenderly, with regret. They were the memory of an experience no one else would ever have.

Raynor Three let him take the controls as they flew back to the spaceport city; and a little before noon they entered the great crystal pylon that was the headquarters of the Federation Trade Bureau on Procyon Alpha. Men and Lhari were moving in the lobby; among them Bart saw Vorongil, Meta at his side. He smiled at her, received a wan smile in return.

Would Vorongil feel that Bart had deceived him, betrayed him, when he heard Bart today?

In the hearing room, four white-crested Lhari sat across from four dignified, well-dressed men, representatives of the Federation of Intergalactic Trade. The space beyond was wholly filled with people, crowded together, and carrying stereo cameras, intercom equipment, the creepie-peepie of the on-the-spot space commentator.

"Mr. Steele, we had hoped to make this a quiet hearing, without undue publicity. But we cannot deny the news media the privilege of covering it, unless you wish to claim the right to privacy."

"No, indeed," Bart said clearly. "I want them all to hear what I'm going to say."

Raynor One came up to the bench. "Bart, as your guardian, I advise against it. Some people will call this a publicity stunt. It won't do Eight Colors any good to admit that men have been spying on the Lhari—"

"I want press coverage," Bart repeated stubbornly, "and as many star-systems on the relay as possible."

"All right. But I wash my hands of it," Raynor One said angrily.

Bart told his story simply: his meeting with the elder Briscoe, his meeting with Raynor One—carefully not implicating Raynor One in the plot—Raynor Three's work in altering his appearance to that of a Lhari, and the major events of his cruise on the Swiftwing. When he came to the account of the shift into warp-drive, he saw the faces of the press reporters, and realized that for them this was the story of the year—or century: humans can endure star-drive! But he went on, not soft-pedaling Montano's attempted murder, his own choice, the trip to the Lhari world—

One of the board representatives interrupted testily, "What is the point of this lengthy narrative? You can give the story to the newsmen without our official sanction, if you want to make it a heroic epic, young Steele. We have heard sufficient to prove your guilt, and that of Raynor, in the violation of treaty—"

"Nevertheless, I want this official," Bart said. "I don't want to be mobbed when they hear that I have the secret of the star-drive."

The effect was electric. The four Lhari sat up; their white crests twitched. Vorongil stared, his gray eyes darkening with fear. One of the Lhari leaned forward, shooting the question at him harshly.

"You did not discover the coordinates of the Council Planet of Ke Lhiro! You did not discover—"

"I did not," Bart said quietly. "I don't know them and I have no intention of trying to find them. We don't need to go to the Lhari Galaxy to find the mineral that generates the warp-frequencies, that they call 'Catalyst A' and that the Mentorians call the 'Eighth Color.' There is a green star called Meristem, and a spectroscopic analysis of that star, I'm sure, will reveal what unknown elements it contains, and perhaps locate other stars with that element. There must be others in our galaxy, but the coordinates of the star Meristem are known to me."

Vorongil was staring at him, his mouth open. He leaped up and cried out, shaking, "But they assured us that among your memories—there was nothing of danger to us—"

Compassionately, gently, Bart said, "There wasn't—not that they knew about, Vorongil. I didn't realize it myself. I might never have remembered seeing a mineral that was of a color not found in the spectrum. Certainly, a memory like that meant nothing to the Lhari medics who emptied out my mind and turned over all my thoughts. You Lhari can't see color at all.

"So no one but I saw the color of the mineral in the cave; you Lhari yourselves don't know that your fuel looks unlike anything else in the universe. You never cared to find out how your world looked to your Mentorians. So your medics never questioned my memories of an eighth color. To you, it's just another shade of gray, but under a light strong enough to blind any but Mentorian eyes, it takes on a special color—"

The conference broke up in disorder, the four Lhari clustering together in a furious babble, then hastily leaving the room. Bart stood waiting, feeling empty and cold. Vorongil's stare baffled him with unreadable emotion.

"You fool, you unspeakable young idiot!" Raynor One groaned. "Why did you blurt it out like that before every news media in the galaxy? Why, we could have had a monopoly on the star-drive—Eight Colors and Vega Interplanet!" As he saw the men of the press approaching with their microphones, lights, cameras and TV equipment, he gripped Bart urgently by the arm.

"We can still salvage something! Don't talk any more! Refer them to me—say I'm your guardian and your business manager—you can still make something of this—"

"That's just what I don't want to do," Bart replied, and broke away from him to approach the newsmen.

"Yes, certainly, I'll answer all your questions, gentlemen."

Raynor One flung up his hands in despair, but over their shoulder he saw the glowing face of Meta, and smiled. She, at least, would understand. So would Raynor Three.

A page boy touched Bart on the arm. "Mr. Steele," he said, "you are to appear immediately before the World Council!"

He was to be asked one question again and again in the days that followed, but his real answer was to Meta and Raynor Three, looking quietly past Raynor One and speaking to the news cameras that would carry his words all over the galaxy to men and Lhari:

"Why didn't I keep it for myself? Because there are always men like Montano, who in their mistaken pride will murder and steal for such things. I want this knowledge to be open to all men, to be used for their benefit. There has been too much secrecy already. I want all men to have the stars."

He had to tell his story again and again to the hastily summoned representatives of the Galactic Federation. At one point the delegate from his home star of Vega actually rose and shouted to him, "This is treason! You betrayed your home world—and the whole human race! Don't you know the Lhari may fight a war over this?"

Bart remembered Vorongil's silent, sad confession of the Lhari fears.

"No," he said gently. "No. There won't be any war unless we start one. The Lhari won't start any war. Believe me."

But inwardly, he sweated. What would the Lhari do?

They had to wait for representatives of the Lhari Council to make the journey from their home galaxy; meanwhile they kept Bart in protective custody. There was, of course, no question of sending him to a "prison planet"; public opinion would have crucified any government that suggested punishment for the man who had discovered a human world with deposits of Catalyst A. Bart could claim an "explorer's share," and Raynor One had lost no time in filing that claim on his behalf.

But he was lonely and anxious. They had confined him to a set of rooms high in the building overlooking the spaceport; from the balcony he could see the ships landing and departing. Life went on, ships came and went, and out there in the vast night of space, the suns and colors flamed and rolled, heedless of the little atoms that traveled and intrigued between them.

A night came when the buzzer sounded and he opened the door to Raynor One and Raynor Three.

"Better turn on your vision-screen, Bart. The Elder of the Lhari Council has arrived with their official decision, and he's going to announce it."

Bart waited, anxiously, pacing the room, while on the TV screen various dignitaries presented the Elder.

"We are the first race to travel the stars." A bald head, an ancient Lhari face seamed like glazed pottery, looked at Bart from the screen, and Bart remembered when he had stood before that face, sick with defeat. But now he need not pretend to hold his head erect.

"We have had a long and triumphant time as masters of the stars," the Lhari said. "But triumph and power will sicken and stagnate the race which holds them too long unchallenged. We reached this point once before. Then a Lhari captain, Rhazon of Nedrun, abandoned the safe ways of caution, and out of his blind leap in the blind dark came many good things. Trade with the human race. Our Mentorian allies. A system of mathematics to take the hazards from our star-travel.

"Yet once again the Lhari had grown cautious and fearful. And a young man named Bartol took a blind leap into unknown darkness, all alone—"

"Not alone," Bart said as if to himself, "it took two men called Briscoe. And my father. And a couple of Raynors. And even a man called Montano, because without that, I'd never have decided—"

"Like Rhazon of Nedrun, like all pioneers, this young man has been cursed by his own people, the very ones who will one day benefit from his daring. He has found his people a firm footing among the stars. It is too late for the Lhari to regret that we did not sooner extend you the hand of welcome there. You have climbed, unaided, to join us. For good or ill, we must make room for you.

"But there is room for all. Competition is the lifeblood of trade, and we face the future without fear, knowing that life still holds many surprises for the living. I say to you: welcome to the stars."

Even while Bart stood speechless with the knowledge of success, the door opened again, and Bart, turning, cried out in amazement.

"Tommy! Ringg! Meta!"

"Sure," Tommy exclaimed, "we've got to celebrate," but Bart stopped, looking past them.

"Captain Vorongil!" he said, and went to greet the old Lhari. "I thought you'd hate me, rieko mori." The term of respect fell naturally from his lips.

"I did, for a time," Vorongil said quietly. "But I remembered the day we stood on Lharillis, by the monument. And that you risked—perhaps your life, certainly your eyesight—to save us from death. So when the Elder asked for my estimate of your people, I gave it."

"I thought it sounded like you." Bart felt that his happiness was complete.

"And now," Ringg cried, "let's celebrate! Meta, you haven't even told him that he's free!"

But while the party got rolling, Bart wondered—free for what? And after a little while he went out on the balcony and stood looking down at the spaceport, where the Swiftwing lay in shadow, huge, beloved—renounced.

"What now, Bartol?" Vorongil's quiet voice asked from his elbow. "You're famous—notorious. You're going to be rich, and a celebrity."

"I was wishing I could get away until the excitement dies down."

"Well," said Vorongil, "why don't you? The Swiftwing ships out tonight, Bartol—for Antares and beyond. It will be a couple of years before your Eight Colors can be made over into an Interstellar line—and as Raynor One has said to me several times, he'll have to handle all those details, for you're not of age yet.

"I've been thinking. Now that we Lhari must share space with your people, you'll need experienced men for your ships. Unless we all want the disasters born of trial and error, we Lhari had better help you train your men quickly and well. I want you to go back on the Swiftwing with me. Not an apprentice, but representative of Eight Colors, to act as liaison between men and Lhari—at least until your own affairs claim your attention."

Behind them on the balcony, Tommy appeared, making signals to Bart: "Say yes! Say yes, Bart! I did!"

Bart's eyes suddenly filled. Out of defeat he had won success beyond his greatest hopes. But he did not feel all glad; he felt only a heavy responsibility. Whether good or bad came of the gift he had snatched from the stars, would rest in large measure on his own shoulders. He was going back to space—to learn the responsibility that went with it.

"I accept," he said gravely.

"Oh, boy!" Tommy dragged Ringg into a sort of war dance of exuberant celebration, pointing at the flaring glow of the spaceport gates. "Here, by grace of the Lhari, stands the doorway to all the stars," he quoted. "Well, maybe you were here first. But look out—we're coming!"

A doorway to the stars. Bart had crossed that doorway once, frightened and alone. Dad, if you could only know! The first interstellar ship of Eight Colors was to bear the name Rupert Steele, but that was years in the future.

Now, looking at the Swiftwing, at Ringg and Tommy, at Raynor Three and Vorongil, who would all be his shipmates in the new world they were building, he felt suddenly very lonely again.

"Come in, Bart. It's your party," Meta said softly, and he felt her hand lying in his. He looked down at the pretty Mentorian girl. She would be with him, too. And suddenly he knew he would never be lonely again.

His arm around Meta, his friends—man and Lhari—at his shoulder, he went back to the celebration, to plan for the first intergalactic voyage to the stars.