« The colors of space », Chapter 3   

Chapter 3

At the top of the ramp, a Lhari glanced briefly at his papers, motioned him through. Bart passed through the airlock, and into a brightly lit corridor half full of passengers. The line was moving slowly, and for the first time Bart had a chance to think.

He had never seen violent death before. In this civilized world, you didn't. He knew if he thought about Briscoe, he'd start bawling like a baby, so he swallowed hard a couple of times, set his chin, and concentrated on the trip to Procyon Alpha. That meant this ship was outbound on the Aldebaran run—Proxima Centauri, Sirius, Pollux, Procyon, Capella and Aldebaran.

The line of passengers was disappearing through a doorway. A woman ahead of Bart turned and said nervously, "We won't be put into cold-sleep right away, will we?"

He reassured her, remembering his inbound trip five years ago. "No, no. The ship won't go into warp-drive until we're well past Pluto. It will be several days, at least."

Beyond the doorway the lights dwindled, and a Mentorian interpreter took his dark glasses, saying, "Kindly remove your belt, shoes and other accessories of leather or metal before stepping into the decontamination chamber. They will be separately decontaminated and returned to you. Papers, please."

With a small twinge of fright, Bart surrendered them. Would the Mentorian ask why he was carrying two wallets? Inside the other one, he still had his Academy ID card which identified him as Bart Steele, and if the Mentorian looked through them to check, and found out he was carrying two sets of identity papers… .

But the Mentorian merely dumped all his pocket paraphernalia, without looking at it, into a sack. "Just step through here."

Holding up his trousers with both hands, Bart stepped inside the indicated cubicle. It was filled with faint bluish light. Bart felt a strong tingling and a faint electrical smell, and along his forearms there was a slight prickling where the small hairs were all standing on end. He knew that the invisible R-rays were killing all the microorganisms in his body, so that no disease germ or stray fungus would be carried from planet to planet.

The bluish light died. Outside, the Mentorian gave him back his shoes and belt, handed him the paper sack of his belongings, and a paper cup full of greenish fluid.

"Drink this."

"What is it?"

The medic said patiently, "Remember, the R-rays killed all the microorganisms in your body, including the good ones—the antibodies that protect you against disease, and the small yeasts and bacteria that live in your intestines and help in the digestion of your food. So we have to replace those you need to stay healthy. See?"

The green stuff tasted a little brackish, but Bart got it down all right. He didn't much like the idea of drinking a solution of "germs," but he knew that was silly. There was a big difference between disease germs and helpful bacteria.

Another Mentorian official, this one a young woman, gave him a key with a numbered tag, and a small booklet with WELCOME ABOARD printed on the cover.

The tag was numbered 246-B, which made Bart raise his eyebrows. B class was normally too expensive for Bart's father's modest purse. It wasn't quite the luxury class A, reserved for planetary governors and ambassadors, but it was plenty luxurious. Briscoe had certainly sent him traveling in style!

B Deck was a long corridor with oval doors; Bart found one numbered 246, and, not surprisingly, the key opened it. It was a pleasant little cabin, measuring at least six feet by eight, and he would evidently have it to himself. There was a comfortably big bunk, a light that could be turned on and off instead of the permanent glow-walls of the cheaper class, a private shower and toilet, and a placard on the walls informing him that passengers in B class had the freedom of the Observation Dome and the Recreation Lounge. There was even a row of buttons dispensing synthetic foods, in case a passenger preferred privacy or didn't want to wait for meals in the dining hall.

A buzzer sounded and a Mentorian voice announced, "Five minutes to Room Check. Passengers will please remove all metal in their clothing, and deposit in the lead drawers. Passengers will please recline in their bunks and fasten the retaining straps before the steward arrives. Repeat, passengers will please… ."

Bart took off his belt, stuck it and his cuff links in the drawer and lay down. Then, in a sudden panic, he got up again. His papers as Bart Steele were still in the sack. He got them out, and with a feeling as if he were crossing a bridge and burning it after him, tore up every scrap of paper that identified him as Bart Steele of Vega Four, graduate of the Space Academy of Earth. Now, for better or worse, he was—who was he? He hadn't even looked at the new papers Briscoe had given him!

He glanced through them quickly. They were made out to David Warren Briscoe, of Aldebaran Four. According to them, David Briscoe was twenty years old, hair black, eyes hazel, height six foot one inch. Bart wondered, painfully, if Briscoe had a son and if David Briscoe knew where his father was. There was also a license, validated with four runs on the Aldebaran Intrasatellite Cargo Company—planetary ships—with the rank of Apprentice Astrogator; and a considerable sum of money.

Bart put the papers in his pants pocket and the torn-up scraps of his old ones into the trashbin before he realized that they looked exactly like what they were—torn-up legal identity papers and a broken plastic card. Nobody destroyed identity papers for any good reason. What could he do?

Then he remembered something from the Academy. Starships were closed-system cycles, no waste was discarded, but everything was collected in big chemical tanks, broken down to separate elements, purified and built up again into new materials. He threw the paper into the toilet, worked the plastic card back and forth, back and forth until he had wrenched it into inch-wide bits, and threw it after them.

The cabin door opened and a Mentorian said irritably, "Please lie down and fasten your straps. I haven't all day."

Hastily Bart flushed the toilet and went to the bunk. Now everything that could identify him as Bart Steele was on its way to the breakdown tanks. Before long, the complex hydrocarbons and cellulose would all be innocent little molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen; they might turn up in new combinations as sugar on the table!

The Mentorian grumbled, "You young people think the rules mean everybody but you," and strapped him far too tightly into the bunk. Bart felt resentful; just because Mentorians could work on Lhari ships, did they have to act as if they owned everybody?

When the man had gone, Bart drew a deep breath. Was he really doing the right thing?

If he'd refused to get out of the robotcab—

If he'd driven Briscoe straight to the police—

Then maybe Briscoe would still be alive. And now it was too late.

A warning siren went off in the ship, rising to hysterical intensity. Bart thought, incredulously, this is really happening. It felt like a nightmare. His father a fugitive from the Lhari. Briscoe dead. He himself traveling, with forged papers, to a star he'd never seen.

He braced himself, knowing the siren was the last warning before takeoff. First there would be the hum of great turbines deep in the ship, then the crushing surge of acceleration. He had made a dozen trips inside the solar system, but no matter how often he did it, there was the strange excitement, the little pinpoint of fear, like an exotic taste, that was almost pleasant.

The door opened and Bart grabbed a fistful of bed-ticking as two Lhari came into the room.

One of them said, in their strange shrill speech, "This boy is the right age."

Bart froze.

"You're seeing spies in every corner, Ransell," said the other, then in Universal, "Could we trrouble you for your paperesses, sirr?"

Bart, strapped down and helpless, moved his head toward the drawer, hoping his face did not betray his fear. He watched the two Lhari riffle through his papers with their odd pointed claws.

"What isss your planet?"

Bart bit his lip, hard—he had almost said, "Vega Four."

"Aldebaran Four."

The Lhari said in his own language, "We should have Margil in here. He actually saw them."

The other replied, "But I saw the machine that disintegrated. I still say there was enough protoplasm residue for two bodies."

Bart fought to keep his face perfectly straight.

"Did anyone come into your cabin?" The Lhari asked in Universal.

"Only the steward. Why? Is something wrong?"

"There iss some thought that a stowaway might be on boarrd. Of courrrse we could not allow that, anyone not prrroperly prrotected would die in the first shift into warp-drive."

"Just the steward," Bart said again. "A Mentorian."

The Lhari said, eying him keenly, "You are ill? Or discommoded?"

Bart grasped at random for an excuse. "That—that stuff the medic made me drink made me feel—sort of sick."

"You may send for a medical officer after acceleration," said the Lhari expressionlessly. "The summoning bell is at your left."

They turned and went out and Bart gulped. Lhari, in person, checking the passenger decks! Normally you never saw one on board; just Mentorians. The Lhari treated humans as if they were too dumb to bother about. Well, at least for once someone was acting as if humans were worthy antagonists. We'll show them—someday!

But he felt very alone, and scared… .

A low hum rose, somewhere in the ship, and Bart grabbed ticking as he felt the slow surge. Then a violent sense of pressure popped his ear drums, weight crowded down on him like an elephant sitting on his chest, and there was a horrible squashed sensation dragging his limbs out of shape. It grew and grew. Bart lay still and sweated, trying to ease his uncomfortable position, unable to move so much as a finger. The Lhari ships hit 12 gravities in the first surge of acceleration. Bart felt as if he were spreading out, under the weight, into a puddle of flesh—melted flesh like Briscoe's—

Bart writhed and bit his lip till he could taste blood, wishing he were young enough to bawl out loud.

Abruptly, it eased, and the blood started to flow again in his numbed limbs. Bart loosened his straps, took a few deep breaths, wiped his face—wringing wet, whether with sweat or tears he wasn't sure—and sat up in his bunk. The loudspeaker announced, "Acceleration One is completed. Passengers on A and B Decks are invited to witness the passing of the Satellites from the Observation Lounge in half an hour."

Bart got up and washed his face, remembering that he had no luggage with him, not so much as a toothbrush.

At the back of his mind, packed up in a corner, was the continuing worry about his father, the horror at Briscoe's ghastly death, the fear of the Lhari; but he slammed the lid firmly on them all. For the moment he was safe. They might be looking for Bart Steele by now, but they weren't looking for David Briscoe of Aldebaran. He might just as well relax and enjoy the trip. He went down to the Observation Lounge.

It had been darkened, and one whole wall of the room was made of clear quartzite. Bart drew a deep breath as the vast panorama of space opened out before him.

They were receding from the sun at some thousands of miles a minute. Swirling past the ship, gleaming in the reflected sunlight like iron filings moving to the motion of a magnet, were the waves upon waves of cosmic dust—tiny free electrons, ions, particles of gas; free of the heavier atmosphere, themselves invisible, they formed in their billions into bright clouds around the ship; pale, swirling veils of mist. And through their dim shine, the brilliant flares of the fixed stars burned clear and steady, so far away that even the hurling motion of the ship could not change their positions.

One by one he picked out the constellations. Aldebaran swung on the pendant chain of Taurus like a giant ruby. Orion strode across the sky, a swirling nebula at his belt. Vega burned, cobalt blue, in the heart of the Lyre.

Colors, colors! Inside the atmosphere of Earth's night, the stars had been pale white sparks against black. Here, against the misty-pale swirls of cosmic dust, they burned with color heaped on color; the bloody burning crimson of Antares, the metallic gold of Capella, the sullen pulsing of Betelgeuse. They burned, each with its own inward flame and light, like handfuls of burning jewels flung by some giant hand upon the swirling darkness. It was a sight Bart felt he could watch forever and still be hungry to see; the never-changing, ever-changing colors of space.

 

Behind him in the darkness, after a long time, someone said softly, "Imagine being a Lhari and not being able to see anything out there but bright or brighter light."

A bell rang melodiously in the ship and the passengers in the lounge began to stir and move toward the door, to stretch limbs cramped like Bart's by tranced watching, to talk quickly of ordinary things.

"I suppose that bell means dinner," said a vaguely familiar voice at Bart's elbow. "Synthetics, I suppose, but at least we can all get acquainted."

The light from the undarkened hall fell on their faces as they moved toward the door. "Bart! Why, it can't be!"

In utter dismay, Bart looked down into the face of Tommy Kendron.

In the rush of danger, he had absolutely forgotten that Tommy Kendron was on this ship—to make his alias useless; Tommy was looking at him in surprise and delight.

"Why didn't you tell me, or did you and your father decide at the last minute? Hey, it's great that we can go part way together, at least!"

Bart knew he must cut this short very quickly. He stepped out into the full corridor light so that Tommy could see his black hair.

"I'm sorry, you're confusing me with someone else."

"Bart, come off it—" Tommy's voice died out. "Sorry, I'd have sworn you were a friend of mine."

Bart wondered suddenly, had he done the wrong thing? He had a feeling he might need a friend. Badly.

Well, it was too late now. He stared Tommy in the eye and said, "I've never seen you before in my life."

Tommy looked deflated. He stepped back slightly, shaking his head. "Never saw such a resemblance. Are you a Vegan?"

"No," Bart lied flatly. "Aldebaran. David Briscoe."

"Glad to know you, Dave." With undiscourageable friendliness, Tommy stuck out a hand. "Say, that bell means dinner, why don't we go down together? I don't know a soul on the ship, and it looks like luck—running into a fellow who could be my best friend's twin brother."

Bart felt warmed and drawn, but sensibly he knew he could not keep up the pretense. Sooner or later, he'd give himself away, use some habitual phrase or gesture Tommy would recognize.

Should he take a chance—reveal himself to Tommy and ask him to keep quiet? No. This wasn't a game. One man was already dead. He didn't want Tommy to be next.

There was only one way out. He said coldly, "thank you, but I have other things to attend to. I intend to be very busy all through the voyage." He spun on his heel and walked away before he could see Tommy's eager, friendly smile turn hurt and defensive.

Back in his cabin, he gloomily dialed some synthetic jellies, thinking with annoyance of the anticipated good food of the dining room. He knew he couldn't risk meeting Tommy again, and drearily resigned himself to staying in his cabin. It looked like an awfully boring trip ahead.

It was. It was a week before the Lhari ship went into warp-drive, and all that time Bart stayed in his cabin, not daring to go to the observation Lounge or dining hall. He got tired of eating synthetics (oh, they were nourishing enough, but they were altogether uninteresting) and tired of listening to the tapes the room steward got him from the ship's library. By the time they had been in space a week, he was so bored with his own company that even the Mentorian medic was a welcome sight when he came in to prepare him for cold-sleep.

Bart had had the best education on Earth, but he didn't know precisely how the Lhari warp-drive worked. He'd been told that only a few of the Lhari understood it, just as the man who flew a copter didn't need to understand Newton's Three Laws of Motion in order to get himself back and forth to work.

But he knew this much; when the ship generated the frequencies which accelerated it beyond the speed of light, in effect the ship went into a sort of fourth dimension, and came out of it a good many light-years away. As far as Bart knew, no human being had ever survived warp-drive except in the suspended animation which they called cold-sleep. While the medic was professionally reassuring him and strapping him in his bunk, Bart wondered what humans would do with the Lhari star-drive if they had it. Well, he supposed they could use automation in their ships.

The Mentorian paused, needle in hand. "Do you wish to be wakened for the week we shall spend in each of the Proxima, Sirius and Pollux systems, sir? You can, of course, be given enough drug to keep you in cold-sleep until we reach the Procyon system."

Bart wondered if the room steward had mentioned the passenger so bored with the trip that he didn't even visit the Observation Lounge. He felt tempted—he was getting awfully tired of staring at the walls. On the other hand, he wanted very much to see the other star-systems. When he passed through them on the trip to Earth, he'd been too young to pay much attention.

Firmly he put the temptation aside. Better not to risk meeting other passengers, Tommy especially, if he decided he couldn't take the boredom.

The needle went into his arm. He felt himself sinking into sleep, and, in sudden panic, realized that he was helpless. The ship would touch down on three worlds, and on any of them the Lhari might have his description, or his alias! He could be taken off, drugged and unconscious, and might never wake up! He tried to move, to protest, to tell them he was changing his mind, but already he was unable to speak. There was a freezing moment of intense, painful cold. Then he was floating in what felt like waves of cosmic dust, swirling many-colored before his eyes. And then there was nothing, no color, nothing at all except the nowhere night of sleep.